Western governments should not hold back. They should be condemning Vladimir Putin’s actions in the strongest terms, and naming them for what they are: illegal. His soldiers have violated a neighbouring country’s sovereignty. His proxies are attempting to redraw international borders. And in a little more than a week, we’ll be treated to a farcical referendum in Crimea, held in haste and overseen by the masked men with guns.
It feels a little bit like the restart of the Cold War – with the operative word being “little.” Compared with our former Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin leads a much-diminished country. He is not playing from a position of strength. We are.
To win this conflict, it’s essential for leaders in Ottawa, Washington and the European capitals to think clearly about exactly what Mr. Putin is up to – and what the West’s objectives are.
The West’s goal should be simple: bringing Ukraine into the Western world of democracy and the rule of law. That means, among other things, offering Ukraine a clear path to joining the European Union. It means significant financial aid to stabilize the Ukrainian economy, and to keep its leaders from being bought off by Moscow, as the last president was. It means thinking hard about how to prevent a rerun of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which ended up giving birth to a corrupt and dysfunctional state.
And while rolling back the Russian occupation of one part of Ukraine, Crimea, is desirable, it may not be a realistic near-term objective. The West should never recognize what Mr. Putin has done. We should not accept it. And we should impose economic and diplomatic penalties as a result of it. But there is a larger prize that we cannot lose sight of, namely, securing a European future for the remainder of Ukraine.
If the West is going to win, it’s also essential to take the measure of our adversary, and to understand his motivations, his strengths and his many weaknesses.
Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton have all compared Mr. Putin’s moves to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938.
In that instance, the Western allies had a chance to stop Hitler’s aggression, but instead they gave in to his demands. They handed a strategic territory to him and stripped Czechoslovakia of its border defences, making it an easy conquest a few months later. Britain and France altered the balance of power against themselves. Had they instead gone to war with Hitler in the fall of 1938, they stood a good chance of stopping a rising Nazi Germany before it was fully risen. The Second World War, the tens of millions of dead, the wreck of European civilization, the Holocaust – all of this might have been averted, if only the Allies had made war against Hitler, then and there.
Crimea in 2014 is not the Sudetenland in 1938. The West’s choices are not between sending our troops to Simferopol today, or seeing Mr. Putin’s armies marching down the Champs Elysées tomorrow. We have the room to be subtler than that, because Mr. Putin’s objectives, though sinister, are considerably more modest. Given the state of the country he leads, they must be.
The Russian economy is barely larger than Canada’s; its main exports these days are oil, gas and laundered money. The Soviet Union offered an alternative global ideology, communism, which up to the 1960s was a real rival to Western ideas of democracy and free markets. Mr. Putin’s Russia, in contrast, is just one more autocratic kleptocracy. It holds no appeal to anyone other than aspiring kleptocrats. The Soviet Union erected the Iron Curtain, and behind it built a buffer zone of puppet Eastern European states, maintained by military force. Today, all of those erstwhile members of the Warsaw Pact are in NATO and the EU. So too are Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, three formerly captive Soviet republics freed by the breakup of the USSR.
Moscow’s nightmare of democracy, free markets and an American-led military alliance on its borders is reality. The past quarter-century has been a string of defeats for Mr. Putin’s side.
Along with Belarus and Russia, Ukraine is the last significant part of the European continent that has not joined modern, democratic Europe. Which is why Mr. Putin is working so desperately to salvage something from Ukraine’s abrupt turn against him.
Just like the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin has long seen the West as his chief adversary, and with good reason. And like the Soviet Union, he commands the Earth’s second-largest nuclear force, and a large conventional military. But in other respects, the country he leads is no longer a superpower. His greatest assets are military, but his greatest weakness is ideological. His enemy is time, the human heart and the progress of history. These are on our side.
The conflict in Ukraine poses a special danger for Putin and Russia’s business-government oligarchy. The threat isn’t a NATO military invasion. Trade sanctions can hurt, but they will not be fatal. The greater long-term threat to the Putin system is a successful, prosperous, multiethnic, rule-of-law democracy next door, in Ukraine, sharing a language (most Ukrainians can speak Russian) and a culture and sitting right across the border.
Mr. Putin is trying to use history and language as a wedge to involve himself in Ukraine. But the influence could also end up running in the other direction. If Ukraine succeeds in becoming a democratic, rule-of-law state, that will be a challenge to the Putin system. There are no guarantees, but if Ukraine joins the Western world, it could give Russians ideas. Mr. Putin is aware of that danger.