Have we forgotten what motivates Putin’s Russia?

Pundits in Washington and around the country are suddenly pushing for a settlement to the Russia-Ukraine war. There will be a settlement one day; the issue is what the terms will be.  Western leaders heretofore have understood that a settlement also must enhance the security of Ukraine and the rest of Europe. Pursuit of a negotiated end to the war will need to codify the reality that Russia’s ambitions against Ukraine and in the region are checkmated.

Various reasons for negotiations at this point are being put forward. First and foremost is the fear that Russia will use a nuclear weapon and draw the United States into World War III. Second is the view that the war will be a never-ending stalemate. With no good end in sight, say these commentators, why not end the war now and accept today’s realities? Third is an implied promotion of the notion that a return to an allegedly more stable world order is to be preferred, even if that ends up rewarding naked aggression. This view puts the balance of power doctrine above international law.

You are reading: Have we forgotten what motivates Putin’s Russia?

Did the pundits forget what Joseph Stalin did after the Yalta Agreement of February 1945, an agreement that the Europeans threw in the faces of the U.S. and the UK for 50 years after Stalin openly broke his promise to allow democratic elections in eastern Europe? Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 across an internationally recognized border. Have the pundits forgotten that after Russia signed the ceasefire agreement, Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries and occupied both areas in violation of the agreement? Has it been forgotten that Russia promised to recognize the independence of the whole of Ukraine, including Crimea, when Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in 1994? Have they forgotten that after the United States made clear in 2013 that it would not intervene in Syria, Russian forces arrived in 2015 and aided in the slaughter of thousands, deliberately bombed hospitals and deliberately created a Syrian refugee crisis? 

Isn’t that what Russia is doing today to Ukraine?

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Have they forgotten that Vladimir Putin in 2007 in Munich targeted NATO as an aggressor for accepting the free choices of former Warsaw Pact nations to join the alliance and renew their democratic journeys? Have they forgotten that Putin has explicitly targeted all the former Warsaw Pact states, plus the independent countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — all current NATO members — as destined for reincorporation into the Russian sphere? Have they forgotten that the multiple failures to act in the past have led inexorably to the decision by Russia to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022? 

The object before us — and these forgetful pundits — is the current Russia-Ukraine war, but the stakes are Europe’s future and, with it, the future world order. The promise of the democratic West when the USSR collapsed in 1991 was to make it possible for all the new states, including those in eastern Europe and the former republics of the USSR, including Russia, to freely choose the direction of their futures.

Russia’s current history, and the history of the USSR, reveals a single overriding purpose: to dominate by subterfuge and force the fates of neighboring states, and by influence and threat the choices of the community of free democratic states. The International Court of Justice in March 2022 ordered an immediate halt to Russia’s invasion as a violation of the United Nations Charter and international law. Are the pundits prepared to reward Russia for its determination to use force rather than obey international law? 

Pundits criticize Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for his tough requirements for talks with Russia. Are they looking for unilateral Ukrainian concessions to Russia? Have they found some reason to believe Moscow this time, as opposed to all the previous broken promises? If the pundits think that the U.S. abandonment of Afghanistan shook confidence in American steadfastness, then imagine what allowing Ukraine to submit to Russia’s bullying will do. No country on earth will have confidence that the United States will defend its interests — or its friends — when the going gets tough.

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Some supporters of Donald Trump have called for cuts in support for Ukraine. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close Putin ally, oligarch and founder of the private mercenary force Wagner Group, acknowledged on Nov. 7 that he interfered in American elections and intends to continue to do so. Did the pundits forget that former President Trump humiliated American intelligence agencies in Helsinki in July 2018 by siding with Putin on the question of interference? Have they forgotten Trump’s holding Ukrainian aid hostage in his attempted political extortion of Zelensky? Would any of these people ever do anything that would help Ukraine? Are the pundits now listening to those Republican voices?

Have they forgotten that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has never been popular at home, that many Russians did not want to be cut off from the West, that Putin had to call the invasion a “special military operation” to dampen resistance at home, or that thousands of Russian fled the country when additional troops were called up? Who has heeded Alexei Navalny’s warning to Time magazine that “time and again, the West falls into Putin’s elementary traps”?

The Ukrainians are winning battles in this war. With enough help, they plan to enjoy further successes. In 1776, Thomas Paine famously fingered the “summer soldier and sunshine patriots” ready to abandon the American independence struggle. He reminded Americans that “tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.” Now would not be the time to abandon our friends, described euphemistically by pundits as the United States “helping” Ukraine define its strategic goals. If Russia emerges from this conflict having faced down the West, the world is going to become ever more dangerous. And recall that China will be watching.

W. Robert Pearson is a fellow with the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies/Rethinking Diplomacy, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey (2000-2003), former director general of the Foreign Service, president of American Diplomacy Publishers Inc., and a scholar with the Middle East Institute.

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