LONDON – Back when most of today’s Western decision-makers were in college, Sting had a hit song with “Russians.” It began:
“In Europe and America, there’s a growing feeling of hysteria / Conditioned to respond to all the threats / In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets / Mr. Khrushchev said we will bury you / I don’t subscribe to this point of view / It would be such an ignorant thing to do / If the Russians love their children too.”
It sometimes seems that most Western analysis of Russia has the sophistication of this song.
The simplicity of the idea that all humans are essentially the same, and that a common understanding is thus always within reach, is seductive. Its appeal stems from the fact that few things are harder than knowing someone whose views of the world are profoundly different from yours. This is why it has been so difficult for a veritable army of Western experts to explain or predict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior.
Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, a narrative has emerged in the West that seems to provide a basis for understanding and negotiating with Putin. According to this narrative, Russia is pursuing its strategic interest in keeping Ukraine unallied with the West because it needs a “buffer zone” between itself and members of North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Some analysts have gone so far as to essentially blame the crisis on the West, which, so goes the narrative, ignored Russia for too long. NATO bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 without so much as paying lip service to bringing Russia in on the decision. It expanded in 2004 to include three Baltic states that border Russia, disregarding Russia’s express opposition. And when the West reached for Ukraine, the sleeping bear had finally had enough and so it reared up.
This narrative is not without merit. The bombing of Yugoslavia enabled an unprecedented rise in nationalist politics in Russia. And NATO expansion confirmed Russians’ worst suspicions about the West. Ukraine’s attempted move westward last year terrified the Kremlin, as did everything that has happened in that country since the protests began in Kiev last November.
The sleeping-bear story is missing two essential components: the role of Ukraine and its people, who have been fighting to choose their own destiny — indeed, this story tends to ignore the existence of Ukrainians altogether — and, ironically, the fact that Putin has his own agency.
It is tempting to view Putin as merely the embodiment of Russia’s reaction to the actions of Western powers. It creates the illusion that he can be managed, or contained. If all he wants is a buffer zone between Russia and NATO, then the way to prevent a large European war is to give it to him, whatever the people of Ukraine might want.
Let him keep Crimea, make Ukraine grant significant autonomy to its eastern regions and promise not to enter into any military alliances — and the Nobel Peace Prize is on its way.
The only problem is that portraying Putin as an unlikable but, essentially, Western politician — one who formulates his strategic objectives in a way Western analysts can understand — misses the point entirely. Russia’s behavior over the past week of a fragile cease-fire in eastern Ukraine has shown this very clearly. Russia kidnapped an Estonian security officer on Estonian territory — the Russians claim he was arrested on Russian soil while spying — and is holding him in Russia. It has re-opened Soviet-era desertion cases against a large number of Lithuanian men. And Russia has ratcheted up its nuclear saber-rattling.
All this points to the possibility that, rather than the beginning of the end of the conflict, the cease-fire is a stepping stone to the next stage of the crisis. That stage may or may not involve Ukraine, but it will definitely involve the use of force and, as it always happens in warfare, it will be bloodier and even more frightening than what came before.
Most Western analysts have chosen to ignore the many ways Russia has found recently to threaten the world with the potential use of nuclear arms. And even when they have not, they have fallen into the trap of thinking like themselves rather than like the other side.
In a recent essay in Foreign Policy, for example, Jeffrey Lewis dusts off the logic of mutually assured destruction to argue that Putin would never actually use nuclear arms. But that argument assumes a lower — Western-politician level — risk threshold. It argues that Putin would not ultimately use nuclear weapons because that would expose him as a naked aggressor.
In reality, though, Putin has no objections to being perceived as an aggressor. His thinking probably goes something like this: “I need to show the world, and my people, that we are not scared of NATO. The way it looks now, any little state — even one that really shouldn’t be an independent state, like one of the Baltics — can join NATO and act like it can do and say whatever it wants — right on our border! Well, I could show them. All I have to do is fire a missile. Not a strategic nuclear weapon, and not at Washington, but, say, a nuclear-tipped missile at, say, a Lithuanian city.
“What’s the United States going to do? Start a nuclear war with Russia over that? Like hell they are. Meanwhile, with one tactical strike at one town, I will have called NATO’s bluff.”
Indeed, if he’s right, he would have completed the destruction of the post-WWII world order that began with the annexation of Crimea.
Does that mean Putin will attack the Baltics or use nuclear weapons? No. But it’s a lot more likely than it would be if he thought like a Western politician.
Of course, one of the reasons Putin does not think like a Western politician is that he doesn’t have to: He has dismantled all democratic institutions in Russia, such as they were, and he is answerable to no one.
The Russian elites, an amorphous concept on which Western policymakers have pinned too much hope, are not independent agents who could or would exert pressure on him. The Russian public, subjected to authoritarian rule and state terror for generations, knows that falling in step, especially in times of war, is essential to survival.
In the absence of democratic mechanisms, Putin needs only the most superficial public support for his acts of aggression — and he can most certainly count on it. In part because the Russians love their children, too — and want them to grow up in a great country that the rest of the world fears.
Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist and author of “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.” The opinions expressed here are hers.
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