PARIS – In the showdown with Russia over Ukraine, the weaknesses and divisions in European policy have been as encouraging for Russian President Vladimir Putin as America’s hesitant approach to Syria was. If Europe is to act responsibly, three key concepts should define its policy toward Russia: firmness, clarity, and a willingness to find an acceptable compromise.
Without firmness, nothing is possible. To be sure, Europe and the US made mistakes in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The US, in particular, can be accused of acting arrogantly and unnecessarily humiliating Russia. But the Soviet Union’s demise was the result of a long string of missteps, beginning with pre-Soviet Russia’s inability to come to terms with modernity. Post-Soviet Russian leaders have yet to confront those failures.
By adopting an aggressive, revisionist stance, Putin has made a historic and strategic mistake. Putin’s model should have been Peter the Great. His ambition should have been to tie Russia’s future to that of Europe. Instead, Putin turned for inspiration to Nicholas I, the most reactionary of Russia’s nineteenth-century czars.
The failure of Putin’s policy can be seen by comparing Russia with China. The gap between the two – in terms of each country’s behavior and achievements – has never been greater. At the G-20 Summit in Brisbane this month, China played its hand masterfully, highlighting its goodwill, particularly on the issue of climate change. Russia, meanwhile, appeared self-isolated – pathetically so, given the impact of its seclusion on its economy.
Russia’s stock exchange is collapsing. Its currency has lost 30% of its value. The price of oil and gas – the mainstay of the Kremlin’s budget – has fallen by more than 25%. In contrast to China, Russia’s economy depends heavily on its energy resources, leaving it vulnerable when global energy markets head south.
Putin’s only strength lies in Europe’s weakness and irresolution. So Europe’s goal must be to set clear limits on Putin’s ambitions. Whether he is seeking to weaken Ukraine or to enlarge Russia’s territory, Europe’s response must be firm. Putin must be convinced that he cannot do either without paying a cost that Russians will not willingly bear.
Given the Kremlin’s ambiguous behavior – if not its deliberate policy of deceit – it seems obvious that France should not deliver a Mistral-class assault warship, which it previously agreed to sell to Russia. It is far better for France to be perceived as an unreliable arms dealer than as an irresponsible strategic actor, caring only about its mercantile interests.
Firmness must be accompanied by clarity. Putin is no longer the leader he was when he came to power in 2000, nor even the leader he was in 2008, when he grabbed pieces of Georgia by force. Under his increasingly centralized and authoritarian rule, he has combined ultra-religious nationalism with Soviet-era tactics and practices. It is a dangerous and volatile mix, relying on principles and methods that led Russia’s empires – Czarist and Soviet – to failure and ruin.
Firmness and clarity are indispensable. But they are not sufficient to formulate a coherent European policy. The goal cannot be simply to contain Russia. A compromise must be reached. True, Russia lacks the means to achieve Putin’s aims. But the rest of the world nonetheless needs the Kremlin’s cooperation and goodwill as it pursues efforts such as the containment of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the fight against the Islamic State.
As long as Russia remains intent on achieving unacceptable outcomes, accompanied by hints of nuclear saber rattling, reaching a compromise will be difficult. Putin is far from an ideal partner with whom to attempt to reconcile the two key principles of international law: the right of a people to self-determination and the sanctity of national borders. But doing so is not impossible.
Any compromise will have to address the future of Crimea, now under Russian domination, and maintain Ukraine’s independence. Putin must be convinced that by gaining Crimea, he has lost Ukraine. For their part, Ukrainian leaders will have to make a commitment not to join NATO, in exchange for Russia’s acceptance of Ukraine’s right to enter the European Union. The progressive removal of sanctions would follow, allowing all parties to concentrate their energies on other priorities, be they economic or strategic.
In its negotiations with Russia, Europe holds the stronger cards. But as long as they are poorly played, as they have been up to now, Putin will continue to win every hand.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
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