Stop Blaming the West for Russia's Aggression
Adam Reichardt, Editor in Chief of New Eastern Europe, argues that Russia's actions in Eastern Europe should be viewed similarly to that of a bully in the schoolyard. The bully will force you to hand over your lunch money and will beat you up if you refuse to play by his rules. No one ever blames the victim (or his friends) for the bully's actions; so why are we blaming ourselves for Russian aggression? It only proves to Putin that he is right in his assumptions that the West will not stand up for its own principles.
Ever since the crisis in and around Ukraine began in 2014, there have been prominent Western voices laying blame for the situation entirely on the West. One of the earliest and most prominent was John J. Mearsheimer's essay in Foreign Affairs titled Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West's Fault, where Mearsheimer wrote off Putin's behavior as being "motivated by legitimate security concerns". Mearsheimer concluded that the West should abandon Ukraine's European aspirations and in effect accept that Russia has a right to a sphere of influence and that the only solution would be to make Ukraine "a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia".
Thankfully, leaders in the West, including Angela Merkel in Germany and Barack Obama in the United States, ignored Mearsheimer's arguments. Broad sanctions against Russia were imposed on behalf of both the United States and the European Union which were meant to reprimand Russia's aggressive policies in Ukraine, understanding rightly that no response would actually be more provocative to Russia than a clear signal from a united community of democracies.
Yet once again, another similar essay has appeared in Western press, this time in the European edition of Politico written by Sir Tony Brenton, the former British Ambassador to the Russian Federation. Brenton's approach harkens to the flawed arguments of the Mearsheimer essay (and many others that followed). While there is no doubt that Brenton's intentions are noble in his hope to cool the situation between the West and Russia; it is an over-simplification to solely blame the West while simultaneously calling on it to unilaterally construct a solution.
Further, Brenton claims that it is Russia that is on the defensive, stating that Putin's moves in Ukraine were reactionary as Russia "sees itself as encircled". This once again creates an excuse for Russia's brazen disregard for international law when it illegally annexed Crimea and enflamed violence in Ukraine's Donbas region.
But that is a dangerous line of thinking. While we can acknowledge that Russia has a point of view, Ukraine is a sovereign country and its people have a right to decide their own future. We should remember that it was the Ukrainian people who, since the end of 2013, have aspired to be a part of the Euro-Atlantic community. To ignore this fact would be to disrespect the hundreds of Ukrainians who gave their lives in the "Revolution of Dignity," and the thousands more who perished in the conflict in the Donbas region.
Russia's actions in Eastern Europe should be viewed similarly to that of a bully in the schoolyard. The bully will force you to hand over your lunch money and will beat you up if you refuse to play by his rules. No one ever blames the victim (or his friends) for the bully's actions; so why are we blaming ourselves for Russian aggression? It is absurd and only proves to Putin that he is right in his assumptions that the West will not stand up for its own principles.
Brenton rightly points out that the road to any solution to the crisis situation lies in the implementation of the Minsk agreement. However, he puts nearly all of the blame on the Ukrainian side, stating that "the core threat to Minsk lies in the Ukrainian government's inability, or unwillingness, to deliver on its promise of negotiated autonomy for the Donbas." Ukraine is not solely responsible for implementing Minsk and it is widely agreed that Russia has to play a pro-active role in ensuring its full enactment. Yet, attacks on Ukrainian troop positions from Russian-supported and supplied separatists continue, with signs that more intense fighting could flare up at any moment.
Lifting sanctions or restoring full relations with Russia should be off the table until Russia takes the first step towards a meaningful resolution to the crisis in Ukraine. This has to start with some serious gestures of goodwill. Releasing Nadiya Savchenko, the Ukrainian pilot who was just found "guilty" in a Russian show-trial would be a good start. Withdrawing support for the separatists in Donbas and becoming a driver (as opposed to an obstacle) in the implementation of the Minsk agreement would also send the right message.
Yet, without willingness on the aggressor's side first, the West should maintain its posture and show that any further aggression is unacceptable. At the same time, instead of backing away the West should double-down its support for the Ukrainian society while increasing pressure on the Ukrainian elite to institute the much needed reforms and encourage greater stability and independence in Ukraine.
It is true that we should strive for better relations between Russia and the West. Backsliding into a new Cold War — or, worse, a dangerous confrontation — puts the world at risk. But the West is not to blame for the situation nor should it be the one to take the first step, as Brenton argued. The ball is in Putin's court. And frankly, considering his track record over the past few years, the West should ask itself: Can we ever trust him again?
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