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Putin doesn’t fear NATO or Ukraine — he fears democracy

Russian President Vladimir Putin

As the world waits to learn if Putin will order a full-scale military offensive in Ukraine, Washington seems to be stumbling over a simple question: How much does Russian aggression in Europe matter to U.S. interests? One view is that Ukraine’s status is more important to Russia than to us, especially because Ukraine is not a part of NATO. Others go further, questioning whether even NATO members, guaranteed protection by Article 5, are worth defending. 

Media have noted Tucker Carlson’s growing influence in Republican circles on this question. Two years ago, he previewed his stance when I debated him on his show. He argued that NATO members Estonia and Latvia, are, like Ukraine, not worth defending if invaded by Russia. I countered, as I explain in more detail here, that it’s in America’s vital interest to support these sovereign nations — precisely because Putin is targeting them for their decision to turn away from the governance model on offer from Russia.

To understand why Putin’s threat to invade Ukraine — or any other independent state in Europe — matters, consider why he might do it. Putin wants you to believe it’s because NATO expansion to Ukraine threatens the Russian people and Russia’s security. He doesn’t genuinely believe this. It’s propaganda.

NATO is a defensive alliance. No member of NATO, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has conveyed a credible threat to peoples or places inside Russia’s current borders. In fact, NATO sought a constructive relationship with Russia after the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., until Putin steered the country onto its present course. Putin is a careful study and knows that NATO isn’t interested in gobbling up Russian territory or subjugating Russian people. Similarly, a sovereign and independent Ukraine presents no actual threat to Russian lands.

Putin fears an independent Ukraine with strong ties to the West for the same reason he sent troops to Kazakhstan last month to put down peaceful protests, poisoned and imprisoned Alexei Navalny, his political opponent in Russia, and directed Russian spy services to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. There’s one common thread running through each of these endeavors — and nearly every other foreign policy initiative now championed by Putin: He wants to undermine democracy, wherever it is, or can take root, especially in countries on Russia’s border that he’s worried he can’t control.

Why does he fear democracy so much? Sure, Putin is a Cold War enthusiast, but his main priority is not to restore the eminence of old U.S.S.R. in Eastern Europe. It’s to boost his own prospect for self-preservation. To Putin, this means consolidating all political powers in Russia inside his office and carefully guarding against the appeal of democratic challengers to his “forever presidency.” Last year, Putin amended the Russian constitution so he can remain President until at least 2036. This will make him Kremlin’s longest serving leader since Peter the Great, even longer than Stalin.

NATO has never posed a real threat to Putin’s supremacy inside Russia. But a well-functioning democracy on Russia’s border, which could inspire new democratic movements within Russia, would. And this threat could be especially dangerous for Putin if it re-focused Russians inward, at their own lamentable economy, instead of on Putin’s outward bluster that NATO is the greatest threat to their well-being.

Because the true source of Putin’s ire is the adoption of more democratic institutions by sovereign states in Russia’s neighborhood, Putin is actually challenging not a particular nation or alliance, but the spread of democracy and rule of law.

When the sovereignty of nations striving for more stable democracies is threatened, U.S. commitment to democracy in general is at stake.

The U.S. cheered Ukraine during three defining events in its democracy: first, when it held a referendum in 1991 and 90 percent of its population voted in favor of independence; second, during the “Orange Revolution” in the winter of 2004, when people took to the streets of Kyiv to protest an election clearly rigged to benefit the Kremlin-backed candidate (the pro-Western candidate survived an attempted assassination by poison), and third, when a groundswell of democratic protests in 2013 forced former President Viktor Yanukovych from power after his decision to back out of a popular trade agreement with the EU in fealty to Moscow. All three were clear rejections of Russia, in favor of democracy.

What Russia is posing to do now, after 30 years of Ukrainian independence, is a clear violation of international law. The lack of a response could usher the collapse of a rules-based order which the U.S. has nurtured since the end of WWII. The U.N. is already absent on the issue of Ukraine’s sovereignty because of Russia’s veto.

In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait without any legal basis for doing so, the U.S. organized a coalition and mobilized in Kuwait’s defense, with U.N. authorization. This sent a message to aggressors around the world that if they invade their neighbors, they could be destroyed.

If Putin successfully invades Ukraine without serious consequences, it would send the opposite message — and might lead Putin to believe he can do it again, including to one of those NATO democracies in Eastern Europe that Tucker Carlson believes aren’t worth defending.

It would also signal to other nationalist regimes with extraterritorial aspirations — including China, Iran, and Turkey — that they too could orchestrate cross-border offensives to stamp out democratic tendencies in their region without repercussion.

David Tafuri served as the U.S. Department of State’s Rule of Law Coordinator for Iraq at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the height of the war in Iraq. He also was an outside foreign policy adviser to President Obama’s 2008 campaign. He currently is an international lawyer at Arent Fox in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter @DavidTafuri.

Tags Authoritarianism Barack Obama Democracy Foreign policy of Vladimir Putin NATO Post-Soviet conflicts Russia Russian aggression Russian irredentism Tucker Carlson Ukraine US foreign policy Vladimir Putin

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