By Anders Aslund.
Finally, the collective West is getting its policy on Vladimir Putin’s regime right. It is delivering plenty of arms and has imposed massive economic and personal sanctions on Russia and its elites. No meaningless talks are being pursued with madman Putin.
It is great that the West has arrived at a sensible policy, but this is also a good time to contemplate what mistakes the West has done in its policies towards Putin over Eastern Europe and which must not be repeated in the future.
Putin clarified his anti-Western policies at the Munich Security Forum in February 2007. Sadly, he was greeted with a great applause. In early 2008, President George W. Bush pushed for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Alas, at the Bucharest NATO summit in April 2008, Germany (Angela Merkel) and France (Nicolas Sarkozy) vehemently opposed that. The unfortunate conclusion was that Ukraine and Georgia would become members of NATO some time in the future, but unclear when or how. Absurdly, at that summit, Putin was also invited, and he declared that Ukraine was not a country.
As a natural follow-up, Putin started a war against Georgia in August 2008, and since then he has occupied one-fifth of Georgia. The United States provided some threatening military supplies, while President Nicolas Sarkozy played a not very impressive mediating role, effectively cementing Putin’s gains. No Western country imposed any sanctions on Russia. Western rearmament was not even considered. Soon afterwards, President Barack Obama started his “reset” towards Russia.
In the summer of 2013, the Kremlin suddenly turned against former Soviet republics concluding association agreements with the European Union, to which it had paid no attention previously. It focused on Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovych refused to comply with the two final conditions of the EU for an association agreement, to adopt a law on the reform of prosecution and to end the political sentence of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, so the EU withdrew its offer at a summit in Vilnius in November 2013. The EU was naively unaware that this might be a cause of Russian aggression.
The Euromaidan. or the Revolution of Dignity. followed, and in late February 2014 Yanukovych fled Ukraine, while Russian special forces proceeded to seize Crimea almost without bloodshed. The collective West was as lost as the Ukrainian politicians, whereas the Russians knew what they were doing.
Fortunately, in March 2014 both the U.S. and the EU reacted by imposing early sanctions isolating occupied Crimea and sanctioning the main culprits and their enterprises. In particular, the U.S. sanctioned Putin’s main cronies: Gennady Timchenko, Yuri Kovalchuk, Arkady and Boris Rotenberg. Putin got so upset that he complained about it in public repeatedly.
The spring was confusing with Russian attempts at fomenting Ukrainian separatist strife, but by July the Ukrainian military forces had become organized, compelling the Kremlin o send in serious special forces into Ukraine (as vacationers). The US reacted by imposing serious financial, oil and defense sanctions on July 16. After the Russians shot down a Malaysian civilian airplane with mainly Dutchmen on board, the Europeans followed on July 30. These were serious sanctions, and they have held firm.
In 2014 and 2015, Merkel and French President Francois Hollande engaged in ceasefire talks with Russia and Ukraine in Minsk. These talks stopped the war, but they did not lead to a real ceasefire, as the Russians only take the U.S. seriously. The U.S. should have engaged, but it did not.
Over time, the Minsk process yielded nothing and ironically it has put more pressure on Ukraine than Russia.
The biggest Western mistake by far was the U.S. election of Donald Trump who adored Putin and claimed that he had a right to Crimea. Admittedly, Trump was so amateurish that he did not control his administration, but he must be seen as a main cause of Putin’s attack on Ukraine in 2022.
President Barack Obama made many smaller mistakes in foreign policy. The reset with President Medvedev was one, though it was not obvious at the time. His worst mistake was to undermine U.S. credibility by setting “red lines” in Syria on the usage of chemical weapons in 2013, while doing nothing when President Assad did use them. Similarly, Obama refused to arm Ukraine in 2014 going against almost his whole administration.
The big lesson today is that the West should have armed Ukraine massively. Fortunately, most observers seem to understand that today.
Meanwhile, Germany oriented itself ever more towards energy purchases from Russia, seemingly guided by Putin’s top European agent Gerhard Schröder. The Merkel-SPD government supported Nord Stream 2, which might have been the greatest signal to Putin to invade Ukraine.
No U.S. administration has possessed such great knowledge about Ukraine as the current Biden administration, notably President Joe Biden himself, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Under-Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. Strangely, their great insights have not permeated this administration. It appears as if the National Security Council, which possesses much less insight, is dominating U.S. policy on Russia.
The shortcomings in the Biden administration’s policy on Russian and Ukraine are many and rather perplexing. After the Trump-Putin dalliance was over, the US should have started arming Ukraine massively from the outset. The US increased armaments, but just a little. U.S. sanctions on Russia and Belarus were late in coming. Shockingly, Biden waived sanctions on Nord Stream 2 in the spring of 2021. Worse, on July 21, the US made a laughable agreement with Germany to keep NS2 going. This was probably the clearest signal to Putin that the West was not serious about any sanctions on Russia.
Yet, from April 2020, the US administration reported extensively on the Russian arms buildup around Ukraine and engaged in substantial deterrent diplomacy. From November 2020, the US reported daily about the Russian arms buildup and warned about a coming Russian attack on Ukraine. As a consequence, hundreds of international journalists went to Ukraine and provided formidable reporting. This was a genius strike by the Biden administration. Never has the world received so much current intelligence and never has it been so well publicized.
After Russia’s outrageous attack on Ukraine on Feb. 24, the West has come together and mobilized as never before. This is excellent and admirable. The West has pursued two tracks, sanctions and arms deliveries. It has introduced massive sanctions on Russia, previously unimaginable, and substantial arms deliveries.
Yet, irrelevant Western arguments persist and hold back the Western support for Ukraine in various countries.
One argument is: “We must not provoke Putin!” Well, the worst provocation is not to offer sufficient defense to countries that Putin wants to attack. A second argument is: “We must not provoke World War III!” The best way of avoiding such a war is to stand up to the bully. A third argument is: “It is irresponsible to call for a regime change in Russia. It might lead to a nuclear war!” In reality, Europe and the world will not be secure until Putin no longer rules Russia. Isn’t that not obvious enough now?
Instead, the West has provoked Putin by not arming Ukraine properly since 2014. Putin loves to threaten the West with World War III and nuclear war, so we need to simply tell him that we are stronger and that he will not survive either option.
Given that Putin has refuted the whole post-World War II order through his actions, we know that it is meaningless to conclude any agreement with him, so why talk to him? Russia will only be peaceful after Putin.
The West needs to declare Russia a terrorist state!