To understand Russia, read Putin
While diplomats meet in Geneva to negotiate an end to the Russian military build-up in Ukraine, pundits and commentators will be analyzing Vladimir Putin for signs of motive and intentions. But there is no better source on Putin than Putin himself.
In July, the Russian president spelled out his views in an op-ed that reiterated his long-held belief that the Russian empire is far from dead, and that history is the ultimate determinant of what is and what is not part of Russia.
“Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians are all descendants of Ancient Rus, which was the largest state in Europe” he writes. (That takes us back to the period of the Vikings.)
Putin makes clear his view that Ukraine and its neighbors are culturally bound to Moscow. “Slavic and other tribes across the vast territory – from Ladoga, Novgorod, and Pskov to Kiev and Chernigov – were bound together by one language (which we now refer to as Old Russian), economic ties, the rule of the princes of the Rurik dynasty, and – after the baptism of Rus – the Orthodox faith. The spiritual choice made by St. Vladimir, who was both Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kiev, still largely determines our affinity today.”
With that backdrop, it seems highly unlikely that Putin will budge and even more unlikely that NATO will accept Putin’s demands, which are tough to meet given his insistence on no nuclear weapons, military exercises, hardware or any NATO defensive activity in Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has raised the possibility of reviving the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which banned the deployment in Europe or Russia of medium-range nuclear missiles.
Russia insists that the West should not defend Ukraine. But NATO’s mission requires that it defend Ukraine.
Formed in 1949 with the signing of the Washington Treaty, NATO is a security alliance whose goal is to safeguard the allies’ freedom and security by political and military means. Practically speaking, the goal is to enlarge NATO — something Putin is hell bent on preventing.
The Geneva negotiations are further complicated by the recent and brutal repression happening in Kazakhstan, where shoot-to-kill orders and Russian involvement in protests have challenged any sense of democracy, which NATO values are based around. By last count, close to 170 people have been killed.
Having talks in Geneva matters. It is always important to hold close consultations with allies and partners, and the U.S. is right to defend its partnership with NATO. But after many direct talks between Presidents Biden and Putin, it is becoming clear that Russia has no plan to de-escalate the situation, but rather to prolong it.
The good news is that it is reasonably easy to measure progress in these talks by how many Russian troops leave Ukraine, although the talks do not appear to be contingent upon an immediate drawdown of forces.
The wild card in all this is Europe. Russian efforts to destabilize Ukraine have been helped by a weak European Union response to Putin’s ambitions in the regions, including the Balkans. Putin has been emboldened by the lack of NATO expansion to include countries such as Croatia a decade ago and Balkan countries more recently. Sensing weakness, he moves.
There is also the complicating factor of a global pandemic that focuses resources and attention on public health around the world just as we are trying to keep peace and prosperity. Nations are like people — they have limited bandwidth and they tire.
One positive sign is that both America and Russia are setting reasonable expectations for the Geneva meeting, expressing pessimism and demanding that each side does not understand the positions of the other. What we must hope is that a productive outcome will allow Washington, Moscow and NATO to say they overcame difficulties to put war on pause.
But one thing is clear: Vladimir Putin, by his own admission, wants to remain a power broker in the world, and his own words remind us that he rarely backs down. America and Europe will have to be ready to impose harsh sanctions if Russia remains intractable in Ukraine and elsewhere. If nothing else, he has our attention, and that’s something Putin always craves.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.