Staunton, July 27 – Having taken the measure of the West and found it wanting, Vladimir Putin has expanded his aggression from the military occupation of Crimea to the organization of irredentist insurgencies in eastern Ukraine to the shooting down of the Malaysian jetliner to the shelling of Ukrainian targets from the territory of the Russian Federation.
All these steps are acts of war. But in response, Western leaders have done nothing Putin cannot live with. On the one hand, the sanctions regimes they have imposed or talked about have not hurt him. Instead, they have allowed him to deflect attention from his own failures at home. And if anything, they have contributed to his popularity there.
And on the other, the discussions about the possibility of the imposition of each new group of sanctions have highlighted the divisions and weaknesses of the West and only served to encourage Putin to believe that he can successfully play on these divisions and weaknesses and continue to wage war.
Indeed and much worse, from the perspective of the Kremlin boss, the actions of the West have suggested to him that three things are true, all of which clear the way for Putin to continue his aggressive campaign to re-establish a Moscow-centered empire over what the Western leaders themselves still refer to as the post-Soviet space.
First, they have shown that the West can be intimidated, that is leaders are either corrupted or affected by corrupted elements in their own society which depend on the sale of Russian gas and oil and thus will not stand up in a serious way to anything, however outrageous and in violation of international law, Putin may do.
Second, they have suggested to Putin that the West is subject to intimidation by nuclear blackmail, by his implicit threat that no one can stand up to him because he has nuclear weapons, a lesson that not only will encourage other countries which have nuclear weapons to behave aggressively but encourage still more countries to acquire them so that they can.
And third, sanctions have demonstrated that the West does not understand that Putin is not operating according to the same rules of the game that they do, that he does not care about the fate of his own people but rather about his own grandeur and power, and that he has the capacity to bamboozle his own population ideologically just as he does them.
If the West continues with economic sanctions being the only thing on the table and with those being leaky and incomplete at best as the French sales of warships to Moscow and the German purchases of Russian gas ensure that it will be, Putin thus has little reason to stop what he has doing. Indeed, he may conclude he has ever more reason to engage in aggression now.
That is all the more true if he believes that Western leaders now are weaker than the ones their populations may insist on replacing them with as his aggression proceeds. Already in many countries, as polls have shown, the populations and that means the electorates are more angry at what Putin is doing than are their governments.
What is Putin likely to do next? Unless the Ukrainian military is more successful than the continuing influx of Russian materiel and manpower makes likely, the Kremlin leader almost certainly will move in the coming weeks to occupy more of Ukraine. As was true with Hitler and the Sudetenland, Putin wants far more than Donetsk and Luhansk. He wants Kyiv.
Moreover, he will continue to pursue his efforts to destabilize other “newly independent states,” counting on a combination of internal fissures ethnic and otherwise in these countries and a reluctance of the West to view what he is doing as a threat until it is so much a one that Western countries will find it hard to respond with anything except – more sanctions.
Can anything be done? The answer, of course, is quite a lot if there is the will to act. No one is suggesting using nuclear weapons against Moscow or even sending NATO armies against Putin’s forces. But there are steps that must be taken if Eurasia is not to be transformed into a bloody cauldron.
First of all, Western governments need to must recognize that Putin is waging a war and doing so because of weakness rather than strength. He is using the old tactic of “the victorious little war” not just because he thinks the collapse of the Soviet Union was in his words “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” He is doing so to save himself. Indeed, his bombast is the clearest evidence of this one could have.
Moreover, Western governments must provide military support for the countries Putin is threatening, including arms and instructors, and do so publicly, explaining that it is Putin’s acts of war against them that has forced them to take such steps. Further, they must downgrade diplomatic relations by closing consulates, shutting the visa window and suspending Moscow’s participation in various international forums, and by imposing real economic restrictions on their own firms from doing business in Russia.
And finally Western governments must the battle against Putin to his own backyard by a massive new international broadcasting effort of direct to home satellite television, in Russian and other languages to the Russian Federation as well as in Russian and the national languages in the countries on Russia’s periphery now threatened. Putin has had this space to himself for too long. It can and must be contested.
Such steps are not without risks or guaranteed to prevent more aggression by Putin in the short term. But the risks of taking such steps are far smaller less than the risks of not doing so – an approach that could lead to an ever more repressive and aggressive Russia -- and the fact that Putin may continue for a time with his war is not a reason not to do what the West can to make that path ever more costly.
Sanctions in the face of acts of war, as we are all seeing with regard to Putin’s actions in Ukraine now, are increasingly clearly not nearly enough.