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Column: The West Misunderstands Putin at Its Peril

Medford, Mass.

In early March, the Russian Federation, after staging a referendum under Kalashnikovs in Crimea, proceeded to annex the region and laid the groundwork — according to Moscow — for “new political-legal realities,” that is to say, a new Russian paradigm for a lawless world. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in her speech to the Bundestag on March 13, Russia is bringing the law of the jungle to the table. For those of us who have lived through Vladimir Putin’s attempts to reverse the results of what he calls “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century — the dissolution of the Soviet Union — what is happening in Ukraine is not unexpected. Nor does it mark the last act of the drama.

It should be abundantly clear now that Putin’s initial plan of taking eastern Ukraine by mobilizing the Russian population there has failed. But that doesn’t mean he’s giving up. Russian strategists are talking about a “weekend of rage” that could involve some kind of armed siege of government buildings in southern and eastern Ukraine. If these local provocateurs and “self-defense forces” manage to hold these buildings as they did in Crimea, it might serve as a basis for further military intervention. Not that we should be surprised by this cynical play book any more.

History can be a useful guide for politicians: first, to help prevent new disasters, and second, to help react to disasters that inevitably happen anyway, despite the best laid plans. And yet, plenty of politicians are making the same mistakes they should have learned from decades ago. These days, I can’t help but be reminded of Yogi Berra’s famous quote, “It’s déjà vu, all over again.”

In Chechnya, tens of thousands of people were killed just to make Putin president and consolidate his power. Then, when the Colored Revolutions — and their successful reforms — became a menace to his rule, he invaded Georgia in order to kill this contagious model and again reconfirm his power.

Now, as before, faced with eroding popularity in Russia, a shale gas revolution in North America, and the need for consistent port access to equip his allies in the Middle East, Putin attacked Ukraine and seized Crimea.

And yet, even with these myriad examples, the West continues to misunderstand or excuse Putin’s aggression. These days, many pundits are busy with soul-searching, with one of the constant refrains being how the West overreached with NATO and EU expansion, and how it needlessly provoked the Russian bear.

The conclusion they come to is that part of the reason for Russia’s behavior, however petulant, lies in Western activism. It’s a particular kind of intellectual self-flagellation and, for Putin, a reflection of Western weakness that only emboldens him.

Neville Chamberlain, when presenting the case for the great European powers to acquiesce to Hitler’s occupation of the Sudetenland, argued that Europeans should not care about a “quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” I hear a lot of pundits now talking about the “asymmetry of interests,” implying that Russia is entitled to annex neighboring countries’ lands for the simple reason that it cares for these lands more than the West. Others opine that we should all get used to the idea that the Crimea is gone, and that Russia will never give it back. This is exactly what I was told in the summer of 2008 — that I should be resigned to the idea that a part of Georgian territory, then occupied by Russia, was gone for good.

But this logic has its continuation. As we know from history, the cycles of appeasement usually get shorter with geometric progression. Soon, the same pundits may declare — with their best poker faces on — that now Moldova is “lost,” or Latvia “lost,” even some province of Poland. And just because Russia is not in the mood to give it back.

The biggest casualty for the West will not be the countries which already are, or strive to be, Western allies, but rather the principles on which the Western world is built. The truth is that Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova are being punished by Russia for their desire to live in a free and democratic society — one very different from the Putin model.

Certainly, Moscow didn’t seem to care much about the minority Russian populations in its near abroad — so long as they were comfortably ruled by corrupt cronies of the Kremlin. But over the ensuing decade, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova have learned to look to the West, not so much because of geopolitical priorities, but because people there aspire to a Western way of life that respects human rights and universal values. For this reason, the West must shelter these countries not just out of pragmatic calculations, but for the very principles that turned the Western democracies into the most successful societies in history.

The basic facts are very clear. Russia presents the greatest challenge to international law and order since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. And even though the West has much greater superiority over Russia — both economically and militarily — than it ever had over the Soviet Union, today’s leaders are reluctant to take advantage of this asymmetry.

The problem, perhaps, is due to the ambivalence of most regional experts that guide Western leaders’ thinking. Their fundamental misreading of Russia is based on the fact that they don’t understand the difference between the Soviet nomenclatura and modern Russia’s corrupt elite. They grossly underestimate the attachment of Russian elites to their mansions and bank accounts in the West.

Likewise, Moscow’s key decision-makers are way more dependent financially and psychologically on the West than the bureaucrats of the Brezhnev era. Sanctions can successfully divide this group from Putin’s inside circle, but they have to go further and exact greater pain.

And yet, despite President Barack Obama’s rhetoric, the West — particularly Europe — appears reluctant to impose tougher sanctions. Unlike during the Cold War, Western companies draw much more benefit from Russia today, and thus they too will have to pay the price of sanctions. But after the first round of sanctions, stocks rebounded as markets were relieved that the measures didn’t seem far-reaching. So how does the West expect to be taken seriously by Putin when even Wall Street isn’t buying the seriousness of the Western alliance’s intentions? The dilemma is simple: Is the West willing to pay this price now, or delay the decision and pay a much higher price in the future?

The choice can best be described in medical terms. The cancer of Russian aggression first showed up in Georgia, but the West decided to neglect the diagnosis and preferred to treat the illness with aspirin. Crimea is the metastasis of what happened in Georgia, and yet the West is still excluding the surgical option — that is to say military intervention — as carrying too high a risk.

But at least it should apply chemotherapy. Yes, this means that the West will feel the effects of its own drugs, and particularly European companies in the short term. But in the long term, this painful dose is the only way to help kill the cancer that is Putin.

Winston Churchill once prophetically told Hitler’s appeasers: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.” Surely, we cannot expect modern-day politicians obsessed with polls and midterm elections to be Churchillian all the time.

But at a minimum they should not want to go down in history as the Neville Chamberlains of the 21st century. And failing to read Putin for the man that he is — and has always been — is at the heart of appeasement.

Mikheil Saakashvili is a senior statesman at Tufts University School of Law and Diplomacy and was president of Georgia from 2004-2013.