A Modest Proposal for Bringing Russia Into the Western Fold | Opinion

Russian President Vladimir Putin has gravely miscalculated. If he thought that he would be welcomed as a savior for invading eastern Ukraine and greeted with a parade of flowers, Anschluss style, Putin wildly underestimated the willingness of the Ukrainian people to fight for their independence. Meanwhile, Europe and the U.S. have united in their opposition to the invasion, levying heavy sanctions on Russia and sending weapons and other assistance to the greatly outnumbered Ukraine.

But what to do with Russia long term? This looming problem is perhaps an even bigger one for the United States and NATO countries to confront than what to do right now.

Of course, there are many examples of dictators under stress who have resorted to military action to shore up domestic support, only to be repelled by NATO and Western intervention. Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo and the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein are two such examples of "managed" dictatorships with limited room to maneuver who were neutralized as a potential threat to the global order.

But this option will not work in the case of Russia. A nuclear power with vast energy resources and a dominant position on the Eurasian continent, Russia simply cannot be contained for decades via sanctions and no-fly zones peppered with the occasional bombings as if it were Saddam Hussein's Iraq between 1990 and 2003.

In other words, while the conflict over Ukraine will end one way or another, the West cannot afford to make the same mistakes it did with regards to Russia in the future as it did in the past.

If the West truly wants to find a way to address Russian aggression, it must learn from its mistakes vis-a-vis Russia—not repeat them.

 MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/Sputnik/AFP
A viral photo claiming to be Russian President Vladimir Putin's house online is false. Here, Putin addresses on the occasion of the Day of the National Guard Troops, in Moscow, on March 27, 2021. MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

It must learn from one mistake in particular: The first and cardinal mistake the West made was that we never ceased to treat the Russians like a smaller version of the Soviet Union. Why is this a mistake? Consider after all that it was the Russian people who played the critical role in overthrowing the USSR, demonstrating that "Russian" and "Soviet" are not synonyms.

But from popular culture to the media establishment to the diplomatic core to some larger trans-national sentiment, this conflation of the Russians with the Soviets never stopped.

And that was a huge strategic error. With the end of the Cold War, the view of Russia as the country of the Russian Revolution of 1917 should also have come to an end. Europe and the U.S. should have supported the emergence of a Russian identity disconnected from Lenin and Stalin, and it should have allowed Russia to embrace such an identity economically, socially, culturally and politically.

It wouldn't have been hard. For all its differences, Russia should not be a strange country for us in the West. We all treasure her contributions to Western civilization, from the piano concerts of Tchaikovsky to the realist novels of Tolstoy and the literary genius of him and Dostoyevsky.

Identity matters in international politics, and a shared identity built around shared values should have been something the West nurtured in Russia. Instead, the continued estrangement between Russia and the West in the 1990s evolved into the kind of mistrust that made Moscow perceive everything from NATO to the EU as a threat.

One worrisome sign that something troublesome afoot was clear in poll after poll showing Stalin emerging as the most popular historical figure in Russia—a complete reversal of the dominant attitude toward him in the early 1990s.

Of course, a welcoming attitude wouldn't have solved all of our differences with Russia. A Russian Federation with a keen awareness of its place in Western culture and civilization would still have been antagonistic from time to time for Realpolitik reasons. But it would have been much easier to find common ground, for example, in dealing with the Ukrainian question.

The humiliation of Russia was simply bad politics. With the end of the Cold War, it should have become clear that China is a much more potent future adversary than the newly formed Russian Federation. As one of the world's most prominent scholars of international relations, John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, pointed out, Russia should have been a natural ally of the West in this new global competition. Instead, Washington and Brussels successfully drove Moscow into the arms of Beijing.

It's possible that the Ukraine crisis will lead to the end of Vladimir Putin's reign. But this should not be viewed as a moment of triumph for the West, or an excuse for further Russian humiliation. Instead, it should lead to an introspection how to get our Eastern neighbor back on a historical path toward Westernization that was so violently interrupted in 1917. If not, this current war will most likely only be the beginning.

Ralph Schoellhammer is an assistant professor in economics and political science at Webster University Vienna.

The views in this article are the writer's own.