HomePoliticsHow the West misread Vladimir Putin

How the West misread Vladimir Putin


Fifteen years ago, the former KGB officer railed against U.S. domination of global affairs and assailed the post-Cold War security order as a threat to his country. In the years that followed, he grabbed portions of Georgia, annexed Crimea and sent troops into Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Mr. Putin sent repeated signals that he intended to widen Russia’s sphere of influence and cast the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to Moscow’s security. He made plain he viewed Ukraine as part of Russia.

Yet until recently few Western leaders imagined Mr. Putin would go through with a full-scale invasion, having miscalculated his determination to use force—on a scale that recalls the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968—to restore Russian control over the nations on its periphery.

Russian forces moved by air and land to attack Kyiv on Friday after launching an invasion Wednesday. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said Russia was ready for negotiations, but the goals of its combat operation to “demilitarize” Ukraine remained.

“It was strategic narcissism and an associated failure to consider the emotion, ideology, and aspiration that drives Putin and the Siloviki around him,” said H.R. McMaster, the retired three-star Army general who served as former U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, referring to the small circle of hard-line advisers around the Russian president.

Mr. Putin’s all-out assault on Ukraine has put the West on its back foot, where it is now struggling to find ways to deter the Kremlin’s aggression and to influence a Russian leader who has openly expressed disdain for the West and called into doubt its willingness to take decisive action.

The costs of the West’s failure to deter Russia are now being borne by Ukraine, which for 14 years has existed in a strategic purgatory: marked for potential membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but never admitted into the alliance and the security guarantees that it provided.

Longer term, the invasion has ruptured the already chilly relations between the Western alliance and Moscow.

When Mr. Putin’s forces invaded Georgia in 2008 after it was promised eventual NATO membership, and recognized two breakaway areas, the West reacted by temporarily suspending dialogue, before returning to business as usual. Sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 also didn’t bite.

In recent months, senior U.S. officials have laid out Mr. Putin’s invasion plans. The misreading of Mr. Putin, however, cuts across multiple U.S. administrations.

Former President George W. Bush said he had looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes and found him trustworthy. Former President Barack Obama dismissed Mr. Putin’s Russia as a “regional power” threatening its neighbors out of weakness. Former President Donald Trump saw the U.S.’s European allies, and their reluctance to assume more of the burden for defense, as a bigger problem than putting the Kremlin on notice. President Biden sought to build a “stable, predictable” relationship with Mr. Putin with a summit meeting in June.

The attack exposes complacency in Europe, which allowed its military to shrink and did little to reduce its energy dependency on Russia, despite Moscow’s increasingly aggressive behavior, which included cyberattacks on Western targets. Even as the West imposes sanctions on Russia, it is sending hundreds of millions of dollars daily to pay for Russian gas.

Western leaders took comfort in the limited nature of Mr. Putin’s earlier military interventions. Those were considered deniable, smaller-scale operations that sought to mask the extent of Russia’s role. Russian actions also included hacks on the Democratic National Committee in 2016 and cyber attacks on its neighbors. The U.S. and its allies neither marshaled the military and economic leverage to forestall his invasion of Ukraine nor presented a major diplomatic concession, such as halting NATO expansion.

“The West did not underestimate Russia’s military capabilities. It watched the determined military modernization program since the Georgian war in 2008, and saw some of its fruits in the militarily successful intervention in Syria in 2015,” said William Courtney, the former U.S. ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan during the Clinton administration. “But the West may have underestimated the Kremlin’s willingness to use force in Europe, and against a people which Putin claims are one with Russians.”

Mr. Putin’s early cooperation with the West morphed into animosity over his two decades in power. The Russia he inherited had a broken bureaucracy and an economy the size of Belgium. Now he oversees a government and military fueled by years of high energy prices.

When Mr. Putin became president in 1999, he cut a very different figure from his predecessor, Boris Yelstin. Mr. Yeltsin had a jovial, backslapping relationship in public with former President Bill Clinton. Mr. Putin was a closed book.

By the time Mr. Putin came to power—via the KGB and local politics in his native Saint Petersburg—Russia was inside the Group of Eight and was being consulted by NATO although staying outside the alliance.

In his early exchanges with Western leaders and new on the international scene, Mr. Putin appeared respectful.

Mr. Bush attempted to build a personal relationship with him. In their first meeting at a summit in Slovenia in June 2001, Mr. Bush said: “I looked the man in the eye and found him very straightforward and trustworthy… I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man who’s deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Putin was the first foreign leader to call Mr. Bush to offer condolences and cooperation in fighting terrorism.

He offered intelligence and logistical support to the U.S. as it invaded Afghanistan, over the heads of some in Russia’s military establishment. Michael McFaul, who would later become an adviser to the Obama administration at the time praised the relationship as “another chance to really end the Cold War.”

Thomas Graham, the senior National Security Council official for Russia affairs in the Bush administration, said that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was the first of several events that Mr. Putin would have objected to if Russia carried more sway.

“Putin didn’t believe in these things but didn’t see much point in opposing them because the West was going to do them anyway,” Mr. Graham said. “He told people that he was not going to oppose them publicly because it would just make him look bad.”

Mr. Putin’s suspicions toward the West became more pronounced with the so-called colored revolutions beginning in 2004 that toppled leaders of former Soviet states, and later with the Arab Spring.

NATO had meanwhile continued its expansion to Eastern European countries that had been in the Soviet-aligned Warsaw Pact in 1999 and then in 2004, when the alliance was also enlarged to cover the three Baltic states that had been part of the Soviet Union. The U.S. and its allies saw enlargement as a way to encourage reform in the newly emerging democracies. NATO’s new members were looking to sit under the U.S. security umbrella should Russia threaten to absorb them again.

Mr. Putin’s anger over enlargement became clear in a speech he made at the annual Munich Security Conference in 2007, where he surprised his audience as he railed against the unipolar world dominated by the U.S. There he laid out his grievances against NATO expansion, leveling allegations of broken promises from the West that NATO wouldn’t shift eastward and depicting enlargement as a threat to Russia.

Enlargement “represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: Against whom is this expansion intended?” he said.

Tensions ratcheted up further a year later. Mr. Putin was invited to a NATO summit in Bucharest, where leaders were discussing a route into the alliance for Georgia and Ukraine. While Mr. Bush wanted the countries to be admitted in short order, France and Germany opposed the move.

In the end, a compromise allowed Georgia and Ukraine to eventually be admitted but with no date set.

The outcome turned out to be the worst of both worlds for the two countries. Hard-liners in Moscow had identified them as potential future adversaries—but ones that weren’t yet protected by the alliance’s security guarantees. “They got the hot breath of Russia on their necks while they didn’t get NATO membership,” said Jamie Shea, a senior NATO official at the time.

While in Bucharest, in a meeting with Mr. Bush, Mr. Putin told him that Ukraine wasn’t a real country, according to Western officials.

In August that year, Mr. Putin invaded Georgia, routing a U.S.-trained Georgian military. Western experts say the Russia learned from the military mishaps in that incursion and subsequently upgraded its equipment and shifted toward a professional, rather than a conscript, army.

When Mr. Obama visited Russia in 2009, he met Mr. Putin at his dacha. There, according to a memoir by the U.S. president, he received an “animated and seemingly endless monologue” on the slights Mr. Putin felt the U.S. had made, including expanding NATO and invading Iraq.

After Russian forces seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Mr. Obama dismissed the development as the actions of a “regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.” The following year, after Russian forces intervened in Syria on President Bashar al-Assad’s behalf, U.S. officials played down the significance, saying it might even lead to a Russian quagmire.

Successive U.S. presidents sought to keep the possibility for cooperation amid the differences. Mr. Shea, the former NATO official, said in retrospect that the West should have acted earlier and more firmly.

“We should have imposed in my opinion the sanctions on Russia that we are imposing today either in 2008 or 2014, because then Putin might have got the message that the West would react vigorously and might have been deterred,” Mr. Shea said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, days before Russia launched war on his country, likened the West’s posture toward Russia to the mistakes of appeasement in the 20th century. He criticized Western nations for not imposing sanctions earlier. “What are you waiting for?” he said. “We don’t need sanctions after the bombardment begins.”



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