Western leaders confer. They confer on how to react to the latest round of Russian aggression, which has supposedly once again taken them by surprise. And, of course, once again the sound of the various pragmatic experts, who advise us to understand Putin, to find a compromise with him, to help him save face.
In western political elites, the view has long held that integration into the global economy with market reforms would automatically lead to the adoption in Russia of basic values of Western (Euro-Atlantic) civilisation: the primacy of human rights, the rule of law, democracy, justice and humanism. Facts contradicting this path were explained by the difficulties of transition and calls to be patient, to wait until these difficulties be overcome “by the power of things.”
When it became evident that this was not a matter of isolated deviations and zigzags, but on the stability of the opposite direction of development, there is a temptation to rush to the other extreme: to explain it with all the fundamental incompatibility of Western values with the “Russian civilisation”, to accept the fact that Russia will never adopt them, and build a relationship with her based on this.
In fact, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has developed a socio-economic system in which personal success is determined by the position in the country’s virtually feudal hierarchy, providing access to the allocation of economic, status, and power resources. This system is only camouflaged with decorative private property and market. Emasculation and imitation of the spirit of formal social institutions is its hallmark. Judicial procedures and electoral mechanisms are fully profane. It is this which provides the lack of control, impunity, and the kleptocratic elite’s strengthened tenure in power.
The very existence of much more successful and attractive societies, in which these institutions really work, is a threat to such undivided domination by, one might say, the elite. Therefore, it is natural that it has declared the entire western system of basic values wrong, and its bearers hostile to Russia. “Western values” are opposed by the idea of 19th century conservative critics of liberalism, fans of the Middle Ages and the predecessors of fascism. Thus the current confrontation between Russia and the West is more fundamental and ideological in character than the confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union. Then, two modernisation projects were competing against each other. Both were rooted in a common spiritual ground: the humanism of the renaissance, and the rationalism of the enlightenment. Today, this confrontation is between modern and archaic, anti-modernisation in its pure form.
The rulers of Russia are convinced that the whole world is built in the same way as those 1990’s criminal gangs which they originate from. Therefore they really believe that democracy and the rule of law (including international law) is simply a deceit allowing the strong to disguise how they impose their will on the weak. Their “humiliating defeat” (the same as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe”) is viewed by them as the Kremlin’s loss of being able to impose its will on the peoples who are in the Soviet empire’s sphere of influence. And they seriously intend to fight for the return of this opportunity.
But the main thing is not the Russian ruling elite’s inherent impressions of the world and its ambitions. More importantly, the ability of the “economic thieves” to provide the public at least relative material well-being due to the high prices of hydrocarbons is nearing exhaustion. In these conditions, the ideology of aggressive anti-Western, anti-liberal traditionalism, implanted by state propaganda, becomes the last means of maintaining the loyalty of the majority of society to the current regime. The most important task is simply to humiliate the eternal Western enemy, to prove to others and above all to ourselves that we can do it, in spite of all its achievements – only this important task can still justify in the eyes of the ordinary citizen the existence of a system based on the systematic humiliation of every individual. But in order to retain the support of the crowds fired up by promises to “outdo America” and “put England in its place”, the system must constantly demonstrate that if it isn’t winning the fight with the “accursed West”, then it is at least fighting.
That is why Putin and his entourage just cannot give up on their policy of Cold War and Hot Brinkmanship with the West. It is clear that such a policy is fraught with the danger of a hot war accidentally breaking out. It is necessary to understand something else: any attempt to buy off Putin with concessions (for example, promises not to take Ukraine into NATO) will not force him to give up on the destruction of the world order, at least in part based on the reigning in of state violence both within their own borders and beyond. It is pointless to try to help Putin save face while he retreats, for he has no intention of doing so.
Putin is sure that will always be able to force the West to retreat. A retreat in the hope that, if you give Putin the opportunity to save face, then he will retreat. In the hope that this will encourage his desire to preserve the benefits of business with the West. In an effort to save at any price the benefits of western business with Russia.
On this confidence is built the entire strategy of hybrid war. This method of warfare is where the Kremlin sends troops into Ukraine, disguising them as “holiday-volunteers” or “unidentified green men”. The leading world powers and international institutions can, if they so desire, pretend that they do not notice, or even if they do, it cannot be proven. The Kremlin’s calculation is built on the fact that Western countries will try to the bitter end to avoid recognising Russia’s direct aggression.
Putin keeps repeating the same dual approach: committing an act of aggression and at the same time blackmailing the world by threatening to take the next, even more dangerous step. Then he imitates readiness as a concession not to undertake this next step. All sigh with relief and try to encourage the manifestation of “goodwill” that at least does not increase the pressure on Russia. This allows Putin to strengthen his hold on the already captured bridgehead and quietly prepare for the next act of aggression. That is how it has managed to actually freeze indefinitely the annexation of the Crimea and the “semi-occupation” of part of the Donbas.
The statements of some “pragmatists” that serious economic sanctions against Russia are harmful, because this convinces the Russian population of the hostility of the West and pushes it to support Putin’s anti-Western policies, are deeply flawed. Currently, anti-Western, imperial revanchism in Russia has been driven to its highest possible level; it cannot be raised further. So, the West has nothing to lose by increasing its sanctions. On the contrary, the failure of the West to strengthen the sanctions will cause only gloating triumph in Russia, and serve more than argument in favour of Putin’s aggressive course. People poisoned by revanchism must face its consequences. This is the only way to cure them.
Putin’s support will end very quickly when his aura of invincibility wears off and he starts to suffer clear setbacks. And the only way to stop him is to defeat him. To achieve this, it is necessary to act contrary to his calculations on the readiness of the West to “show understanding”, “take into account his interests”, or to “compromise”. To do this, you must not be afraid to recognize and openly say that the challenges to the world posed by Putin have the same properties and the same degree of danger as those posed by Hitler in his time. That this threat can be removed only with the removal of the Putin regime. If it is not possible to eliminate Putin’s regime in the foreseeable future, then it will be necessary to isolate and weaken him in military and economic terms to the maximum degree.
The timely repelling of an aggressor does not mean an absolute guarantee of war with him. But the policy of appeasement through concessions guarantees that war in all certainty, and in a much worse situation. This has been proven by history. And at some point it must be said: the deeper Russian military intervention in Ukraine will have a military response. Ukraine will receive military assistance, military equipment, instructors, and satellite reconnaissance data. And if the existing international structures are too cumbersome to quickly make coordinated decisions, nothing prevents individual states from acting independently. This requires only political will.
Putin is not yet ready to fire nuclear warheads at Washington and London. It is not necessary to wait until the time is ripe for it. Putin never rejects moves that he is already ready to make. But he never carries out acts which he is not ready to. His blackmail is always bluff. Putin is genuinely afraid of losing face. He knows that this will lead to the rapid destruction of his power. Therefore it is not necessary to help Putin to save face. He needs help in losing face. He needs help in breaking his neck.