The countries spun off by the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union have become pawns in the Kremlin leader’s campaign to reassert Russian authority, fend off neighboring countries’ drift into the West’s orbit and to restore pride among Russians who have endured shrinking global clout since the Cold War ended, Carol Williams writes for The LA Times.
“It seems Mr. Putin has decided to test the stability of the international system in a surprisingly resolute manner,” said Igor Lukes, professor of international relations and history at Boston University. “I think his anschluss of Crimea, which appears to be a fait accompli that no one seems to think about reversing, was a serious defeat for international stability and the notion that borders cannot be changed by force.”
The most troubling of the reactions to Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, destabilization of Ukraine and protestations (“threats”) about his need to defend Russian speaking populations throughout Eastern Europe have been from observers who believe that NATO’s enlargement in the 1990′s was wrongheaded and an immediate cause of Putin’s belligerent actions, according to Kim Davis, chairman of the Baltic American Freedom Foundation and a member of the board of Freedom House:
If the Baltics had not joined NATO, who can doubt that Putin would view them the way he did Crimea – a geographically important piece of real estate that should be under his thumb. Estonia and Latvia have large Russian populations, which would have provided a convenient excuse for Russian aggression. Putin finds the Baltics particularly irksome because their visible success is testimony to the advantages of democratic capitalism relative to his governing philosophy, which is best described as authoritarian kleptocracy.
There are at least two powerful reasons why Estonians — and by now the rest of Europe — should be worried. Jeffrey Gedmin, a Senior Fellow at Georgetown University and the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue:
“First, Russia has been evolving from gangster state to predator nation,” he writes for The Huffington Post:
“Vladimir Putin was a bully in school and a chose to be a bully in professional life as a KGB man,” says a senior Estonian official. “His behavior should not surprise us now,” he adds. At first, Putin and fellow kleptocrats began to shrink space for free media, independent NGOs, and meaningful political opposition. They have been consistent. It’s a pattern stretching over a decade and a half now. Journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down because of her reporting on Chechnya. Mikhail Khodorkovsky spent ten years in prison because Putin considered him a political rival. Members of the band Pussy Riot went to jail for impertinence. It’s pretty hideous stuff, but many of us assured ourselves, this was merely a domestic affair.
“But now it’s clear that Russia wants to spreads its brand of illiberalism abroad. Putin’s speeches speak to his ambition,” Gedmin adds. “He derides Euro-Atlantic values, and has no time for rule of law, accountable government, tolerance or diversity. He sees these things as decadent and as signs of weakness.”
In foreign policy, Putin drew lessons from the humiliating experiences of being unable to counter what he saw as the West’s brazen incursions into Russia’s neighborhood, says Lukasz Kulesa, an analyst at the Polish Institute for International Affairs:
The Russian leadership concluded that when playing by the existing rules underpinning the European system, Russia is bound to be defeated every time. Its expectation that the West would accept possession of a privileged sphere of interest in the eastern post-Soviet space quite simply was incompatible with the very foundation of a system built on democratic values and principles. After trying to achieve a “grand bargain” with the US and leading European powers on tacit division of the spheres of interest and proposing reconfiguration of the system itself (remember President Medvedev’s European security treaty initiative?), Russia decided to introduce new game rules through its actions on the ground, first in 2008 in Georgia and then in 2014 in Ukraine.
“Despite attempts to add an ideological twist to its land grab, using the ‘Russian world protector’ narrative and presenting the new Russian policy as a push toward a new polycentric world, at its heart lies the old-fashioned intention to protect its sphere of influence,” he adds.
A newly-published book suggests that “the history of 1991 is worth revisiting now that Ukraine has reignited an old debate in U.S. foreign policy: whether America’s first priority should be to support the right of national minorities to govern themselves, or whether to support the sovereignty of nations within existing borders,” writes Slate’s Joshua Keating:
While the U.S. has talked a big game about the first ideal dating back at least to Woodrow Wilson, the second has more often than not tended to win out in the name of global security. As Bush’s Ambassador to Ukraine Roman Popadiuk puts it in the book, it’s not so easy “for one superpower to support the dismantlement of another.”
The United States and its democratic allies need a comprehensive diplomatic strategy which makes a long term commitment to counter Putin’s territorial and political ambitions, Freedom House’s Davis argues on CNN’s Public Square:
First, we need to communicate that our position on Ukraine is completely consistent and derivative of our long term interest in promoting freedom and democracy around the world. Our policy is not to oppose Russia but to support freedom.
Second, our rhetoric should match the reality of our actions. Strong condemnations of Putin’s actions followed by limited sanctions of limited scope is of limited value. If anything, our actions should be at least as powerful as rhetoric.
Third, we need presidential leadership. If we want to promote democracy in Eastern Europe as an enduring component of our foreign policy, then we need President Obama to use his office to educate the American people and Congress on why Russia’s actions have been dangerous and must be countered.
“Democracy either spreads or recedes,” he adds. “Now is the time to recommit ourselves to the simple ambition of celebrating the end of the Cold War as the moment when the world saw a permanent increase in the number of democratic countries and not simply an interlude between periods of authoritarian repression.”