US President Joe Biden recently assured his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy that America would “respond decisively” if Russia launched another invasion. It wasn’t particularly encouraging. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Over the past few decades, we have frequently heard such harsh words from Western leaders whenever they were confronted with the reality of Russian aggression. Unfortunately, the promised answers are never truly decisive.
Instead of deterring the Kremlin, such a posture undermines the credibility of the West. It fuels skepticism and raises all sorts of questions among the millions of people in the former Soviet Union who saw their independent nations invaded, occupied and annexed by the Russian Federation.
For thirty years, Russia has imposed its will on the entire post-Soviet world while openly obstructing progress. Nonetheless, Moscow still enjoys what amounts to an unofficial veto over neighboring countries’ EU and NATO membership aspirations.
Today’s discussions of a possible future response ignore the fact that Russia has already annexed Crimea and has an ongoing war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. This gives the initiative to the Kremlin and risks rewarding Russia for choosing not to escalate its eight-year war against Ukraine.
By neglecting Russia’s long list of international crimes and limiting itself to promises of future sanctions, the West is inadvertently lending credence to Kremlin claims that Ukraine is somehow not fully sovereign. The same twisted logic also applies to Georgia, another independent country that was partially occupied by Putin and became the target of Kremlin attempts to unilaterally impose a Russian veto on its foreign policy.
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Putin’s apparent indifference to Western warnings is understandable. Since the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, he has heard the same hollow promises of decisive action, usually accompanied by expressions of grave concern.
This did not prevent Moscow from occupying and then formally recognizing the independence of the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Likewise, strong Western statements of condemnation did not deter Putin from seizing and annexing Crimea. They also failed to facilitate the withdrawal of Russian forces from eastern Ukraine or Moldova.
It is now clear that the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest marked a turning point in terms of dysfunctional post-Soviet relations between Moscow and the West. When Russian pressure succeeded in preventing Georgia and Ukraine from receiving membership action plans from the military alliance, the Kremlin was encouraged to become much bolder in its foreign policy goals.
We are currently witnessing the logical continuation of this historic process, with Russia’s ambitions now extending to all the countries of the former Warsaw Pact.
Putin’s recent list of security demands clearly indicates that he seeks to reassert Russian dominance throughout the post-Soviet space. It will bolster Russia’s claims to superpower status while exposing Western powers’ inability to deliver on their promises. Above all, it will also allow Putin to safeguard his own political future.
Despite Putin’s frequent claims that the West poses a growing military challenge to Russia, his actions are not driven by fear that NATO forces are closing in on his country’s borders. Instead, Putin wants to shield Russia from successful examples of democratic transition. Georgia’s emergence as a stable and increasingly prosperous European democracy poses an intolerable threat to Putin’s authoritarian regime. The same goes for Ukraine.
Success is contagious and inspiring. Putin and his Kremlin colleagues are well aware that the successful democratization of post-Soviet countries like Georgia and Ukraine will set a powerful precedent for Russian society. It is their greatest fear and the driving force behind Russia’s aggressive foreign policy in recent decades.
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Russia’s bold and belligerent conduct calls for immediate international action, not just ambiguous talk of a “decisive response” at a later date. In other words, the Western world must match Putin’s audacity while making good use of his overwhelming military and economic superiority.
In response to Russia’s demands for a veto over regional foreign policy decisions, NATO must act decisively and open the door to Georgian and Ukrainian membership. This is exactly the kind of force and determination that Russia least expects and is most unable to respond to.
For too long Moscow assumed it could literally get away with murder in neighboring countries. The West’s inadequate response to successive instances of Russian aggression has fueled this sense of impunity. As a result, we now face the very real prospect of Europe’s greatest conflict since World War II.
None of this was inevitable. Like all bullies, Putin backs down when faced with real strength and only moves forward when he senses weakness. For years, its willingness to use force has enabled it to intimidate the international community and strike well above its geopolitical weight. However, in reality, modern Russia is no match for the democratic world. To reduce Putin to his size, it is enough that Western actions finally match Western words.
Tinatin Khidasheli is president of the Georgian think tank Civic IDEA. She previously served as Georgian Defense Minister.
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
the Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and the Central Asia to the East.
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