The West has a rare window to put Putin in his place

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there were “two paths” and that the “diplomacy and de-escalation” option was one of the two that the United States and the international community had offered to Moscow before the meetings.

Blinken met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Stockholm, Sweden, in December, amid growing concerns among Western powers that Russia is seeking to invade Ukraine.

Relations between the West and Russia never rebounded after that point – instead, reaching almost Cold War lows. The NATO-Russia Council, founded in 2002 as a discussion workshop for cooperation between the West and Russia, has not met for more than two years.

Blinken said on Friday that progress could be made in next week’s diplomatic talks between US, EU and Russian officials, but that it had to be a “two-way street” with Russia defusing its aggression against Ukraine.

While several NATO officials have told CNN that in their view the fact that Russia has finally agreed to meet is a major concession and a sign that diplomacy could lead to de-escalation, they are also cautious about the fact that an increasingly hostile Kremlin might not meet in good faith.

It was only last month that Moscow released two draft agreements outlining its demands to defuse tensions on the Ukrainian border. These demands include the setback of NATO deployments to Eastern Europe to some point in the 1990s, meaning that many countries neighboring Russia and were under Soviet control would be less protected by the alliance.

This, added to the promise that NATO will not expand further east, is an unacceptable demand and a failure from NATO’s point of view.

So what do the Russians hope for?

NATO sources say the demands could be “deliberately ridiculous to force a rollback on things like admitting new NATO members, removing Ukraine and Finland from the mix,” or could simply to be “a performance that allows Russian officials to say they tried to negotiate in order to justify escalation to their citizens.

Given the inflexibility on both sides, what is the point of the meeting?

According to officials of NATO’s most vocal and long-standing members, Wednesday is an opportunity for the alliance to establish a firm and unified position: if Russia escalates tensions, it will face “serious consequences. economic. deployed in 2014. ”

Officials who spoke to CNN were not clear on what these tools would be because “reporting them would give Russia an opportunity to prepare for it, defeating the goal”, but it is fair to say that they would be a mixture of tough economic sanctions and even more NATO at Russia’s doorstep.

As risky as Western hostility to provoking Putin may be, inaction could be worse. “Surrender to otherworldly demands would make the overall situation much more dangerous, as it would only encourage the Kremlin to act aggressively,” said Pasi Eronen, research analyst at the Conflict Studies Research Center. “In addition, China and other revisionists are watching the reaction to a Kremlin bet.”

What is notable when speaking to officials and experts is the feeling that the West is far less afraid of Russia than it has been in recent years. Poisoning and assassinations of Russian citizens on foreign soil, brutal repression and imprisonment of political opponents, interference in foreign elections and the annexation of Crimea have all painted a picture of Putin as a strong leader who must be feared.

In this image provided by the White House, President Joe Biden speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone from his private residence in Wilmington, Delaware on Thursday, December 30, 2021.

Of course, if you live in Russia or a neighboring country and have opposed Putin, then he is a scary individual. However, his growing aggression could be in part due to his diminishing power in other areas.

“Putin is an aging autocrat, obsessed with the legacy of his regime and that of the failure of the Soviet Union,” says Eronen. “Russia has been ravaged by Covid-19, and the future of its oil-export economy looks bleak.”

It is in this economic weakness that the West, if it remains united, will eventually be able to force Putin’s hand.

“His country has an economy roughly the same size as New York. If the West properly coordinated economic sanctions against him and Russian companies without fear, he would be cornered very quickly,” said Bill Browder. , a prominent United States-born. financial whose push for the Penalties of the Magnitsky Law infuriated the Kremlin.

While the West has imposed sanctions on Russia in recent years for various Kremlin misdeeds, it is fair to say that they could have gone further.

That’s part of why next week is so important: If NATO allies are all on the same page, it could send the strongest message possible at a critical time. Just as Putin tries again to take his chances, the West has the opportunity to say in a formal diplomatic setting that it is at the end of its patience.

In order to make any new sanctions more effective than previous attempts to punish Russia, the West must be prepared to endure some suffering. In the past, he has avoided targeting Russian sovereign debt and energy trading.

According to Richard Connolly, associate researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, “the increase in the costs of doing business for Russian companies, either by restricting access to capital or by restricting access to technology”, could have a greater impact on the Russian economy and on Putin’s inner circle than to target individuals because “the most critical Russian affairs are somehow related to the Kremlin.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds his annual press conference in the Manezh Exhibition Hall in central Moscow on December 23, 2021.

He also said that “the imposition of secondary sanctions on those who trade with Russia” in areas such as energy, weapons and strategic goods could cause similar damage to that which the secondary sanctions have caused to Russia. ‘Iran.

On the thornier question of traditional hard power and NATO’s potential expansion, some believe the allies have reason to be optimistic when they meet the Russians on Wednesday.

“We must join forces and not be afraid. Putin is afraid – not us. He is afraid of his own people, afraid of democratic elections,” said Rasa Juknevičienė, former Lithuanian defense minister. She believes that the time has come to accelerate Ukraine’s accession to NATO.

“Europe cannot go back to the days of Hitler and Stalin, when nations were divided. Ukrainians, not the Kremlin, must decide what the future of Ukraine will be. Ukraine’s success would be the best remedy against the Kremlin. They fear the most, ”she adds.

Obviously, next week’s talks will be tense and resolving the Ukraine crisis will not be easy. Putin can be most dangerous when stuck in a corner, observers say, and he’s currently juggling several foreign policy crises after Russian troops were deployed to neighboring Kazakhstan to quell unrest following violent protests. anti-government. A recurring theme over the past few years has been Putin leaning on Western errors of judgment – from pulling out of Afghanistan to inaction in Syria – and using all the power he has to bolster his reputation as a powerful leader.

And as several NATO officials have conceded, Putin cares about Ukraine far more than many Westerners and will have unlimited patience to get what he wants if he feels any weakness.

The West heads out next week with so many strategic advantages over Russia that it should be relatively easy on paper to force Putin’s hand into de-escalation in eastern Europe. However, Putin has not been in power for more than 20 years without a reason.

If the West is to succeed in taking advantage of its position at this critical moment and reducing Putin to size, its unity must be unbreakable. A repeat of the mistakes of 2014 could create an even more dangerous version of the Russian leader if he is able to stare at the world’s most powerful alliance.


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