When U.S. President Barack Obama and European allies meet this week, they can begin forming a meaningful response to Vladimir Putin’s adventurism. This new strategy should note that Putin’s view of the world is rooted in dangerous fictions.
Churchill said Russia was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Under Putin, Russia’s rhetoric can be described as a fantasy inside a delusion wrapped in a tissue of lies. He may believe that Ukrainians are fascists intending to attack Russians, but it is not true. Ukraine’s interim government is widely representative, and no outside observer has found evidence of a campaign of violence against Russians.
The greatest disaster of the 20th century was not, as Putin has said, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The greatest disasters of that century were one world war that came about as a result of uncertain leadership and unclear priorities; another world war that began when ethnic jealousies were used as a pretext for domination; and a half a century during which a totalitarian power oppressed its own people and its neighbours. The first was a result of misunderstandings, the second a result of outright lies and the third a result of brute force.
After the Soviet empire collapsed, the hope was to have a Europe whole and free and for Russia to be a part of it. But to Putin, the ultimate revisionist, Russia has spent more than 20 years being insulted, unable to project its power, to persuade others or to stop others from projecting their power. He tells Russians not of their potential to join the world but that they are victims and have enemies. In reality, Russia is more prosperous today than during the Soviet era, and its citizens benefit more from international involvement.
Given that Putin’s aggression has broken international law, it is interesting that he is trying to justify his actions with precedents — which also are not based on facts. Putin says that he is doing what other states did in Kosovo, but that is simply not true. In the 1990s, international interventions in the Balkans were approved, contributed to and governed by large numbers of states in many institutions and informal arrangements, including the UN Security Council. Steps were taken over many years, with force used only after diplomacy was exhausted.
Drawing on this package of fictions, Putin has resorted to military power and propaganda — his available tools — and has acted in a place where a majority of the population is Russian and where he thinks manipulating ethnic tensions might work. His lies cannot be allowed to stand. If his doctrine of "helping" minorities that are not in danger were endorsed, the world would become much more dangerous. Only a firm response has a chance of preventing this scenario from being repeated. Putin’s Russia may not listen, but states around the world are looking to see how the United States and its allies answer.
To that end, we have made a good beginning. The European Union has signed an association agreement with Ukraine. The United States and others have supported international observers, reinforced our allies in Central and Eastern Europe, and pledged financial and security support for the interim Ukrainian government. Sanctions are in place against those who have violated international law, and more are coming.
But these steps, and those that follow, must be in service of a wider strategic vision. The best principles to draw from are those that have guided the West since the Second World War that each country may decide its own relationships, and that Europe should be democratic, free and undivided.
The strategy should have three parts.
First, the status of the territories Putin claims should remain disputed. No aid should flow to Crimea, and its officials should not have international standing. Europeans, Americans and the International Monetary Fund must help Ukraine with funds, a plan and advisers.
Second,Obama and U.S. allies should let Russia’s leaders and its people know that Russia would be welcome if it chooses to be a responsible member of the international order. We welcome those who would measure their country’s greatness by its wealth, engagement with the world and stability of relationships with neighbours, and not only by military power on its borders.
It is not for us to say who governs Russia. But Putin’s authority lies in his role as arbiter among 400 so-called men of power who benefit from state-controlled banks and companies. They and he should be made to feel the price of his actions. Their assets should be subject to scrutiny and interdiction when they cross international boundaries.
Third, and most important, Obama’s trip to Europe for the Group of Seven and the U.S.-EU Summit should produce a strategy for the states bordering Russia. The crux of any strategy must be to create durable economic and social ties for Ukraine and the West.
Here we can draw a lesson from the Balkans. As the Kosovo War ended in 1999, the U.S. president Bill Clinton concluded that the weak states of the region, torn by ethnic divisions, could not thrive. He immediately pledged at a summit in Sarajevo to bring those states into a Europe whole, democratic and free.
Obama and our allies can make a similar pledge this week and immediately take steps to support the macroeconomic stability of Ukraine and key countries, to integrate their companies into trading relationships and to allow the people of the region opportunities to pursue education and employment, in a manageable fashion. A stronger trans-Atlantic community embodied in the proposed trans-Atlantic trade agreement would provide a magnet for countries looking to reject the Eurasian Union.
We must recognize, however, that Ukrainians have to be able to defend themselves. While we are beginning to provide some non-lethal assistance, the president needs to reverse a previous proposal to cut funding for a program to modernize the Ukrainian military. The Ukrainian government also needs help defending against cyberattacks and help with policing, especially riot control.
As Ukrainians prepare for presidential elections in May, they will be seeking leaders who can deliver and help them live as they want. Since the Orange Revolution, the Ukrainian people have made clear that they want to participate in Europe. Then, they were failed by their leaders but also by the international community, which did not pay enough attention.
It does not happen often that a country is given a second chance. Ukrainians have one, and so do international leaders. The First World War was followed by the Second World War and the Cold War. History will not forgive those responsible if another Cold War occurs.
Madeleine Albright was secretary of state from 1997 to 2001. Jim O’Brien was presidential envoy for the Balkans in the Clinton administration. She is chairman and he is vice-chairman of the Albright Stonebridge Group.
—The Washington Post