How the West Should Deal With Putin

Russia's President Vladimir Putin speaks with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as they visit the Sevastopol Presidential Cadet Academy, Crimea, August 19. Happily for the Kremlin, its primary targets are too small, too close, too corrupt for the West to get worked up about, the author writes. Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin/Reuters

This article was first published on the Chatham House site.

"Cold War warrior" is a moniker often directed at those who are critical of Russia's actions abroad and believe it is necessary to adopt a firm response. To hold such views is, for a vocal minority, to be living in the last century and to refuse to accept that the old Soviet enemy has gone.

Those who are uncomfortable with reproach and/or robust policies toward Russia can be grouped in four analytical categories, which sometimes overlap in practice and which all have one thing in common—they view the post-Soviet states as something "lesser." Lesser than, say, Poland; and certainly lesser than Russia.

Four Categories

To start, there are those, exemplified by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder or former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, compromised by long-standing ties to the Kremlin or Russian state enterprises. Their devotion to the Russian line and to Vladimir Putin personally means that few take them seriously.

Second are those who believe that the West is more or less equally to blame for the bad relationship with Russia. Some of them claim that the West is actually responsible for most of what it finds undesirable in Russian behavior (for instance, by expanding NATO); others simply believe that the West behaves no better than Russia (unsanctioned force in Kosovo, mission creep in Libya, etc.).

The charge of double standards is a potent one. But while it contains kernels of truth, it is not the whole truth. Clearly the West does not always behave well, but few Western countries can be classed as autocratic kleptocratic regimes, as Russia can.

Third are the realists. For them, Russia is what it was—not the Soviet Union, but still a great power demanding of extra respect. And great powers, they say, will always browbeat smaller, weaker neighbors. International order supposedly depends on it. They concede that it is rough on Ukraine (and Georgia and elsewhere), but that is just tough.

Finally there are those those who fully accept there is a problem and are suspicious of the Kremlin's nature and intentions, but draw a convenient distinction between Russia's activities in the former Soviet space and its actions beyond it.

According to this view, the Warsaw Pact countries once also under Soviet control and anywhere to their west are largely off-limits to Russia and must be defended. (The three Baltic states divide this category into two subsets however as they are, confusingly, both formerly Soviet and in NATO—some believe they are worth "saving," and some do not.)

The West has no obligation to countries not in NATO. This may be because most of the post-1991 countries themselves are at least as abysmally governed as Russia (as, say, Yanukovych's Ukraine undoubtedly was) or it may be because they are believed not to be worth the risk of defending against Russian pressures on them to conform to the Kremlin's ambitions.

A Better Western Policy

A different approach, outlined in the recent Chatham House report The Russian Challenge, argues not for treating Russia as it was when part of the USSR (a superpower), or as it would like to be (a great power), nor even as a strategic partner (this has been tried—it failed because Russia diverged too far from Western norms).

Sensitivity to Russia's own self-declared interests is necessary—as long as those interests in no way diminish the sovereignty of other countries. But Russia should be treated for what it is—a country with different interests in Europe explicitly promoting an alternative values system and anti-Western views, determined to assert itself abroad far more forcefully than U.S.-led democracy promotion ever did. A country whose worldview is often diametrically opposed to that of the West and the stated positions of many former Soviet states.

Fortunately for the Kremlin, its primary targets abroad are countries which are too small, too close, too corrupt and authoritarian and, for some minds, too "important to Russia," for the West to get worked up about.

A better way of approaching Russia than through ideological prisms is according to the evidence. If, for example, evidence shows that Russia has bribed its way to hosting the World Cup in 2018, then it should be stripped of it. If there is no such indication, it should keep it.

If Russia is seen to be retreating from Ukraine (including, of course, Crimea), the West should respond in kind. If, however, the Kremlin is verifiably underwriting an insurgency within the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine with finance, arms and its own military forces, as it is now, then the West should respond with punitive measures, including sanctions.

While this might not force Vladimir Putin to retreat in the predictable future, it would help to constrain his options for further action. It would also offer clarity to others dealing with Russia and the wider leadership of Russia.

Furthermore, it would remove any hint of Western geopolitical expediency suspected by many analysts, and it would offer greater predictability for the majority of the 45 million Ukrainians, 4.5 million Georgians and the 90 million others in the remaining ex-Soviet countries.

Such evidence-based policy must also of course apply to the other former Soviet states. If Ukraine does not progress with its reforms then it should not count on extensive Western financial support. Chatham House's new Ukraine Forum is designed to offer that evidence, for or against, to help decision makers and investors in their deliberations.

Given that this is not a Cold War, it follows that we should not accept the current Russian contention that it is subjected to one. Accepting that the other 14 former Soviet states are subordinate to Moscow is not just a betrayal, it is bad policy too.

James Nixey is head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. This article was first published on the Chatham House site.