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Vladimir Putin, just after being elected President again in 2012: Since then, he has made it clear he’s no longer interested in co-operating with the West. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK/REUTERS)
Vladimir Putin, just after being elected President again in 2012: Since then, he has made it clear he’s no longer interested in co-operating with the West. (ALEXANDER DEMIANCHUK/REUTERS)

MARK MACKINNON

How the West lost Putin: It didn’t have to be this way Add to ...

In a September essay in The New York Times arguing against U.S. intervention in Syria, Mr. Putin took on the idea of “American exceptionalism,” and by extension U.S. world leadership. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too,” he wrote.

“You have to understand the world in which Mr. Putin believes he lives. He’s sure he’s in a power struggle, a geostrategic battle with the West,” said Alexander Golts, a Moscow-based military analyst. “One of the battlefields is Ukraine. In the beginning of December, he thought he’d won, and then [Mr. Putin believes] the West organized these protests in Kiev and stole his victory. Now he has to show his Western counterparts that he’s not weak. He also has to show his inner circle that he’s not weak.”

In Ukraine, it’s Mr. Putin who is bending the rules and distorting the facts in the same way he has accused the West of doing elsewhere. But the battle for Ukraine is existential for him. Ukraine is central to Russian history and culture, and crucial to Mr. Putin’s ambition of restoring a sphere of influence over Moscow’s post-Soviet neighbours. He’s almost certainly not going to back down, whatever the cost. There “will be mutual damage,” Mr. Putin said when asked about the possibility of Western sanctions over Crimea.

We knew this, or at least we should have. But a lack of Western scholarship on Russia – and the closure of many foreign media offices (including The Globe and Mail’s own Moscow bureau a few years ago) – has contributed to a dangerous lack of understanding of Russia in the West.

China, by contrast, has in the past 15 years been deemed far more worthy of study and journalism than Russia. Lobby groups such as the Canada-China Business Council badgered Mr. Harper relentlessly when he didn’t visit Beijing during the first two years he was in office. No one seems bothered that Mr. Harper – eight years into his prime ministership – is the only G-8 leader who has never made an official, bilateral trip to Moscow.

“In North America, the thinking was that European affairs are European affairs,” said Andrew Robinson, a former Canadian ambassador to Ukraine. “We don’t have a relationship with Russia right now.”

Which, we can see now, has its costs. Every Western leader understands that opening an embassy in Taiwan would bring a furious response from Beijing. But no one in Washington, Brussels or Ottawa seems to have expected what Moscow might do if the West encouraged the overthrow of a pro-Russian leader in Ukraine.

When Mr. Baird was in Kiev last week to show his support for Ukraine’s post-revolutionary leadership, I asked him when was the last time he had met with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. There was a pause of nearly 10 seconds before Mr. Baird recalled that both he and Mr. Lavrov had attended a Syria peace conference in Montreux, Switzerland in late January. They’ve had no interaction at all, then, since the change of power in Kiev, or the Russian moves in Crimea.

A decade ago, The eXile, a now-defunct satirical magazine based in Moscow, published a list of 101 ways that Mr. Putin’s Russia then resembled Weimar Germany. It was meant to be humourous, but the issue in fact made for extremely depressing reading. Anger at foreigners was rising, the eXile noted, as was militarism.

Russia then was a proud but wounded country, one suffering from collapse of its empire. The fall of the USSR was Russia’s Treaty of Versailles.

Mr. Harper, Mr. Baird and Ms. Clinton say Mr. Putin’s Russia today reminds them of Nazi Germany. Scary words to describe a scary situation.

If only they paid such attention to Russia in the decade before we got to here.

Follow me on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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