The West Fell Into Putin’s Trap

Foreign Policy, 24.01.2022
Caroline de Gruyter, corresponsal europea del diario holandés NRC Handelsblad


The troops at the border

It all started when he gathered troops on the border with Ukraine, claiming (rightly) that they are on the borders of his country and he has every right to do so. But it is impossible for these moves to go unnoticed when Russia has invaded Ukraine twice in the last decade – in Crimea and Donbass – and has been at war since 2014.

According to a Foreign Policy analysis, it was not surprising that the United States and its allies in Europe reacted strongly to Moscow’s moves, warning that an invasion of Ukraine would lead to “unprecedented” sanctions. US President Joe Biden also warned his Russian counterpart during the “Cold War” bilateral meeting not to make such a move.

However, FP columnist Caroline de Gruyter wonders if this diplomatic mobilization was exactly what Putin needed, and if, in the end, Westerners, in their quest to prevent him, fell into his well-established trap.


The problems of the economy

According to this view, the recent period has not been good for the Putin regime. The economy, which relies mainly on exports of goods, is not growing and there does not seem to be any real effort to change it to look less like that of a developing country.

Russia is huge, but its territory is largely empty and its GDP is only comparable to that of a medium-sized economy like Spain.

Its population and, most importantly, its skill level are declining. The Kremlin seems to have given up on policies that would meet the expectations of the people. Instead, it seems to be focusing on the Putin regime’s medium-term self-preservation. In this context, the regime is looking for other means to support its legitimacy. For example, he presents himself as the successor to the Soviet Union.

It also directs public opinion against the “hostile” West through propaganda and, most importantly, cultivates in the people of the country the belief that Russia is a “superpower.”

Especially for the latter, Caroline de Gruyter has doubts. He explains that, on the international stage, Russia can destroy but it cannot build. He supports dictators and helps them suppress their people.


Superpower because of… USA

It helps some governments – but not their citizens. Beyond that, the ability to emerge as a superpower stems from the way the US treats it.

In particular, Washington seems to be taking Moscow seriously and acting in a way that gives credibility to Putin’s estimated provocation.

On Russian television, a summit between Biden and Putin is likened to a meeting of two adults discussing how to deal with children (that is, the rest of the world), including embarrassing smaller countries such as Ukraine.

All this is known. So why does the West keep forgetting it? Why does he keep falling into Putin’s trap?

The last few weeks have been extremely beneficial for the Putin regime. First, the Russian president has taken the initiative and made headlines. He has reminded the world and the citizens of his country what he can do if he wants to.

It could invade Ukraine if it wanted to, and the proof of that is how much the West fears Putin. For a regime that relies so much on power, both internally and externally, such confirmation from its “enemies” is very important.

Then, moving his troops near the Ukrainian border, Putin has shocked across Europe and the United States, sparking discussions about how they would react if he did invade Ukraine.


The West is divided

Sanctions would probably be imposed, as before. But from these discussions, Moscow will draw a key conclusion : the West is divided. Instead of being a deterrent, she has done nothing more than expose her weaknesses. The divisions are visible between the member states of the European Union, most of which are members of NATO. Sometimes there are even divisions within governments, as in Germany.

Putin also came out victorious, showing Ukraine and other former Soviet satellites tempted or in alliance with the West that their Western allies are weak and indecisive in the face of existential threats. The West would meet urgently, discuss sanctions, perhaps even impose them as it did after Russia’s previous invasion of Ukraine – but nothing more.

But again, this is not something new. But it is a reminder that helps the Russian narrative : Ukraine, you are alone. This led you to move away from the Russian sphere of influence. At the same time, Putin rushed to the aid of his “colleague” in Kazakhstan to stay in power. This is what true friends do.

In addition, these developments have shown that the United States continues to play a leading role in European security. This also benefits Moscow.


The EU is gone

Putin loves to be seen as the only interlocutor with the United States, like in the good old days of the Cold War. The EU, which Putin is constantly trying to undermine, is nowhere to be seen.

The FP states that a positive conclusion is also drawn. The United States, while leading diplomatic efforts with Russia, has insisted that all its actions be coordinated with its European allies and the European Union. Europe should be grateful for that.

In recent weeks, Russia has also managed to bring back to the table its “narrative” of European security, that is, “the West has been acting aggressively against it since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, forcing it to defend itself.” That is why they presented their proposals for a new European security architecture that would ban more countries from joining NATO. Moscow is well aware that none of this will be accepted. But again, this narrative fuels the propaganda that the Kremlin has as a pillar of its power. For Moscow, keeping the Ukrainian issue up to date is in itself positive.

Whatever happens or does not happen in the coming days and weeks will in any case bring significant gains to Putin, especially in the way Europe and the United States have responded to his threat.


Could he have avoided it?

The question is whether Europe could have avoided all this. Maybe not, but it could certainly have made Putin difficult in a number of ways.

First, the West should have lowered its tone. We knew that discussions about possible sanctions from Europe and the United States would be difficult and that would weaken their deterrence.

Even the word “sanctions” sounds weak compared to the seriousness of a military invasion of another country. The West should not have discussed the sanctions in public. Instead of showing its divisions, it should keep its cards closed to Putin.

The messages should be passed to the Kremlin discreetly, through diplomatic channels, so that Moscow does not benefit politically from them.

Second, instead of talking about sanctions, the West should talk about the rules that govern the international system, such as territorial integrity and the right of countries to make their own choices.

Speaking of sanctions, it only reinforces the idea that this is a game of table tennis between two opponents, an idea that is convenient for the Russian side.

On the contrary, if they used the argument of the rules, as the German Foreign Minister did this week in Moscow, it would be much smarter, which was confirmed by the body language of the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, that is, pushing Russia to the sidelines and out. from the circle of “serious” countries.


The reward…

Third, the West needs to think more about the benefits that Putin expects and use its expectations against him. He can not reward bad behavior, as he did in this case. But it can reward good behavior – or at least the opposite of bad behavior. For example, if the Russian president wants to be seen on stage with the US president, let the West give it to him only as a reward.

The message must be passed, discreetly, that only if Putin acts “correctly” will he be rewarded with a meeting with Biden. Putin will understand this language.

Russian diplomacy works like this: Never give something you can sell. Again, all this must be done behind the scenes so that Putin can change course without showing remorse. This leads to a different question, which is directly related to this issue. Can effective diplomacy be conducted in public?

It has become almost impossible to do serious work without everyone knowing. This is positive as it increases responsibility, but on the other hand makes it difficult to effectively coordinate and smart strategy.

So the price the West has to pay is a big win for Putin.

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