Negotiating with a liar (Putin’s dog is a cat)
At the beginning of hostilities in Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas regions in the spring of 2014, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation. She came away shocked, stating that Putin was living in “an alternate reality.” To Putin, NATO was the aggressor, an illegitimate neo-Nazi regime in Kyiv was murdering via crucifixion Russian speakers, a civil war was engulfing Ukraine, and Russia was providing no military assistance to those brave fighters of the two “separatist” republics, standing up to the Kyiv ultra-nationalists.
That was “Putin’s world” as of March of 2014, and it remains “Putin’s world” today as the West attempts to negotiate with the Kremlin to de-escalate rising tensions on the Russia-Ukraine-Belarus border.
Western negotiators are learning, as did Merkel a decade ago, you cannot negotiate with an opponent who insists that black is white and that a dog is a cat. Whether Putin believes it or not is irrelevant. What matters is that “a dog is a cat” is integral to his attacks of Ukraine, NATO and the United States.
Consider that it is a “fact” in Putin’s alternate universe that regular Russian troops have never engaged in the Ukrainian conflict. To him, what is going on is an internal “civil war.” Putin makes the assertion of no Russian involvement, despite the return of Russian conscripts’ bodies from Ukraine, the capture of regular Russian troops in Ukraine (they somehow got lost or were on holiday), and the panoply of Facebook (vkontakte) postings by young Russian troops from Ukrainian territory.
Oh, and by the way, the tanks, munitions and artillery that the East-Ukrainian “volunteers” deploy against Ukrainian forces arrive mysteriously of their own volition, including Russian missile crews that shot down a Boeing 777 over Ukrainian territory.
The myth of no Russian involvement is pierced at times, provoking a frantic Kremlin denial. The latest is a court case from Russian military headquarters in Rostov in which a supplier of food for the Russian army was caught paying bribes in return for lucrative contracts. The court papers describe the defendant as providing enough food on up to 70 trucks to feed tens of thousands of Russian soldiers stationed in the two “separatist republics” (DNR and LNR) of Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine.
This one court case was significant enough to elicit a denial from Putin’s own press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, as some kind of mistake. The Kremlin quickly deep-sixed records of these court proceedings, but not before they were captured in archived documents.
Presumably, Putin can distinguish black from white and a dog from a cat. So why does he continue to — and let’s use the right word here — lie? Putin’s lies are critical to his alternate universe, according to which the fighting in eastern Ukraine is purely an internal Ukrainian matter with which Russia has nothing to do. In any peace negotiation, such as those in Minsk in 2014 and 2015, Russia insists it belongs on the side of the peacemakers and that by no means is Russia a combatant. In fact, according to this logic, Russian troops should be used to maintain the peace. In fact, Ukrainian analysts fear that Russia will cite “humanitarian concerns” to justify the permanent occupation of eastern Ukraine.
Imagine negotiating with that: There can be no discussion of Russian troops leaving Ukrainian territory because there are none there now, and they never were there. Yes, and Russia, as a nation that treasures peace, is prepared to use its own troops to “keep the peace” along the border with Ukraine. Putin would claim that Russia is reluctant to intervene in this purely domestic dispute, but it must do so as a responsible citizen of the world.
I wish U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken the best of luck. He needs it.
And Blinken enters the negotiation bereft of the biggest weapon of all — the threatened use of U.S. or NATO troops. That option is already off the table. Blinken can either wait to be caught off-kilter by the next blow from Putin or to set up truly crushing sanctions to be applied in the case Russia violates a red line (which we appear not to have established). Among these sanctions would clearly be the end of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline project, personal sanctions on Putin’s inner circle, removal of Russia from the Society of Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), or the sanctioning of Russia’s central bank — the ultimate weapon.
One move is a no-brainer: The U.S., Canada and NATO should do their best to arm Ukraine to the teeth. Those who hesitate, such as Germany, will later regret their inaction.
Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.
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