The West Fell Into Putin’s Trap
Even if Russia never invades Ukraine, it is accomplishing one of its major goals in Europe.
Whatever else he ultimately decides to do, Russian President Vladimir Putin has succeeded at keeping the West's diplomats busy in recent months. It all started when he moved sizable contingents of his troops closer to different parts of Russia’s border with Ukraine. Russia has moved troops close to Ukraine before, and Moscow insists it has the right to do so on its own territory, which is true. But it’s impossible not to interpret these moves in light of the fact that Russia has already invaded Ukraine twice in the past decade—in Crimea and in the Donbass—and has remained at war there since 2014.
Whatever else he ultimately decides to do, Russian President Vladimir Putin has succeeded at keeping the West’s diplomats busy in recent months. It all started when he moved sizable contingents of his troops closer to different parts of Russia’s border with Ukraine. Russia has moved troops close to Ukraine before, and Moscow insists it has the right to do so on its own territory, which is true. But it’s impossible not to interpret these moves in light of the fact that Russia has already invaded Ukraine twice in the past decade—in Crimea and in the Donbass—and has remained at war there since 2014.
It is therefore not surprising that the United States and its allies in Europe have reacted loudly to Russia’s latest moves, warning Moscow that an invasion of Ukraine would cost Russia dearly in the form of sanctions. U.S. President Joe Biden has stepped in and, in highly visible bilateral meetings, warned his Russian counterpart not to invade Ukraine.
But what if this diplomatic show was exactly what Putin wanted out of his move? What if the West played into his hands by trying to deter him? What if the West actually fell into his carefully laid trap?
Facts are cruel to the Putin regime. It is easy to portray Russia as a country in decline. The economy, which is overwhelmingly dependent on the export of commodities, is far from flourishing, and there seems to be no real effort to change it to less resemble that of a developing country. Russia is huge, but its territory is largely empty and its GDP resembles only that of a middle-sized economy like Spain. Its population and, more importantly, its level of skills, are decreasing. Social indicators are going south. The Kremlin seems to have given up on policies that would meet the population’s aspirations. Instead, it seems to be concentrating on the medium-term self-preservation of the Putin regime.
In this context, the regime has been searching for other means of shoring up its legitimacy, such as by presenting itself as the successor to a virtuous Soviet Union; instigating propaganda-fueled collective paranoia focused on the perfidy of the West; and, most importantly, building popular belief in Russia’s status as a superpower.
But is it? On the international scene, Russia can destroy but it cannot build. It supports dictators and helps them in their repression. It aids some governments—but not their citizens. It has an important, politically unconstrained nuisance capacity. Beyond that, the capacity to symbolize more than anything else this so-called superpower status is the fact that the United States seems to take Russia seriously and acts in a way that gives credence to Putin’s calculated hubris. On Russian TV screens, a summit meeting between Biden and Putin is made to look like two adults discussing how to deal with the kids (i.e. the rest of the world), including annoying smaller countries like Ukraine.
All this is well known. So why does the West keep forgetting it? Why does it keep falling into Putin’s trap?
The last few weeks have been immensely beneficial for the Putin regime. First, Putin has grabbed the initiative and the headlines. He has reminded the world and his own subjects of what he can do if he wants to. He can invade Ukraine if he desires, the proof of that being how fearful the West is of Putin doing so. For a regime relying so much on force, internally and abroad, such confirmation by its so-called enemies is very significant.
Then, by moving his troops close to the Ukrainian border, Putin has sent shockwaves throughout Europe and the United States, prompting discussions on how they would react should he indeed invade Ukraine. Sanctions would probably be imposed, as they were before. But the main conclusion Moscow would draw from these discussions is that the West is divided. Instead of producing strong deterrence, the West has done little more than reveal cracks everywhere. Divisions are in the open among members of the European Union, most of which are also NATO allies. Sometimes, divisions even appear within governments, such as in Germany. Russia often sends military aircraft into its adversaries’ airspace, poking air defenses and observing how they react, which provides useful information in case Russia wants to attack for real. For the West, this is not useful.
Putin has also won the day by showing Ukraine and other ex-Soviet satellites tempted by or in an alliance with the West that their Western allies are weak and indecisive in the face of existential threats. The West would convene urgently, discuss sanctions, perhaps even impose them like they did after Russia’s previous Ukraine invasion—but nothing more. They would certainly not defend Ukrainians, even those countries committed by treaty to guarantee Ukraine’s security. Again, this is not new. But it is a timely reminder that helps the Russian narrative: Ukraine, you’re on your own; this is what moving out of the Russian orbit has done for you. At the same time, by contrast, Putin rushed to help his fellow dictator in Kazakhstan stay in power. That is what true friends do.
The whole episode has shown that the United States remains the leading actor on European security. This is also good news for Moscow. Your enemies define you perhaps better than your friends do. Putin loves being seen in a one-on-one dialogue with the United States like in the good old days. The EU, which Putin hates for many reasons and consistently tries to undermine, is nowhere to be seen.
There is one piece of good news though. The United States, while leading the diplomatic efforts with Russia, has insisted that all its actions are in close coordination with its European allies and the European Union. Europe needs to be grateful for this.
In the last few weeks, Russia has also managed to put its narrative on European security back on the table; the West has been acting aggressively against Russia since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, forcing Russia to act in self-defense. The Russians have offered their traditional proposals for a new European security architecture that would ban more countries from joining NATO. Moscow knows very well that none of this will ever be agreed to by its Western interlocutors. But then again, this narrative fuels the collective paranoia the Kremlin sees as a pillar of its authority. For Moscow, keeping the issue alive is good in itself. These proposals need to be turned down if they are to contribute to the regime’s preservation.
All of this has been achieved by moving Russian troops around and perhaps even engineering communications to be picked up by Western ears. Whatever does or does not happen in the next days and weeks, Putin has already scored significant gains thanks to the way Europe and the United States have reacted to his threat. Could Europe have avoided that? It could certainly have made it harder on Putin in a number of ways.
First, the West should have lowered its tone. We knew discussions on possible sanctions in Europe and the United States would be difficult, and this would weaken their deterrence. Even the word “sanctions” sounds weak in comparison with the seriousness of a military invasion of another country. The West should not have discussed sanctions publicly. Instead of exhibiting divisions, it should have communicated in a way that would have kept Putin guessing. It should have projected uncertainty on its possible reaction like any field commander would have done. Messages would have had to be passed to the Kremlin discreetly, through diplomatic channels, so Moscow could derive no political benefit from them.
Second, instead of talking about sanctions, the West should talk about the rules governing international politics, such as territorial integrity and the right of countries to make their own choices. By talking of sanctions, one only reinforces the idea that this is a malevolent ping-pong game of mutual retribution between two archenemies—which is exactly where Putin wants to be. By contrast, talking about the rules, like the German foreign minister did this week in Moscow, is much smarter, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s body language showed: It pushes Russia off the stage, into the margins, and out of the circle of serious countries worth dealing with.
Third, the West needs to think harder about the benefits Putin expects from his antics and use his expectations against him. It cannot reward bad behavior, as it has done during this episode. But it can reward good behavior—or at least the reversal of bad behavior. For example, since the Russian president wants to be seen onstage with the U.S. president, let the West give him that only as a reward. Let it organize the quid pro quo in a way that reinforces the West’s wishes. It needs to pass the message, discreetly, that only if Putin acts decently will he be rewarded with a Biden meeting. Putin will understand this language. Russian diplomacy works like that: Never give something you can sell. Again, all this needs to be done out of sight, so Putin can change his course without losing face.
Which leads to a separate but connected question: Can efficient diplomacy be conducted publicly? It has become virtually impossible to do serious business without the whole world being made aware of it. This is good news as it increases accountability, but it also makes true coordination and smart strategy more difficult. The price, a big victory for Putin, is the West’s to pay.
Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Brussels.
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