US President Barack Obama says that Russia is becoming increasingly isolated as a result of Moscow’s actions and the response of the West and will become even more so if he continues is aggression, but that is not how it appears to Vladimir Putin who sees that Western leaders are always ready to come to Moscow to meet with him.
This tension – between a desire to isolate and even punish Russia for what it is doing in Ukraine and an equally powerful desire to solve the problem that by talking directly with Putin – reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of what the Kremlin leader cares about and what will affect his thinking.
Putin has shown again and again that he doesn’t care what happens to the Russian people — at least inside the Russian Federation — but he cares profoundly that he is treated as a leader equal to those of other major powers and especially of the United States. Consequently, if the West is to have an impact on him, it needs to refocus its efforts to isolate him not Russia.
At the very least, that means Western governments should talk to Moscow only at a much lower, diplomatic level. Every meeting in Moscow or Minsk with Putin to which Western leaders rush to attend reinforces Putin’s view that only elites matter, with the additional collateral damage of boosting his standing with Russians.
At a time when jet travel makes such visits easier than ever before, when telephone conversations between leaders have become the norm, and when the public and expert communities in most countries expect their most senior official to take the lead, reducing contacts with Putin while maintaining contacts with Russia won’t be easy.
But it is absolutely essential that Western leaders try because otherwise they are giving Putin something he doesn’t deserve, the simulacrum or even the reality of equal treatment by the leaders of the Western democracies, and not giving the Russian people a chance to see that the West holds him but not Russians as a whole responsible for his crimes in Ukraine.