As people across continents witness the suffering of Ukrainian people under Russian attack, western governments are at a decisive moment in history. Do they take resolute action to finally stop President Vladimir Putin’s regime? Or do they stay the course of their slow-paced policy of limited containment, under the optimistic assumption that it will prevent direct military confrontation with Russia?
To answer these questions, western leaders need to be honest and straightforward with their nations about the threat posed by Putin’s Russia and the West’s role in enabling his regime.
Today, Putin’s Russia is not just a captured state run by an authoritarian criminal-mafia regime – it is also a rogue-terrorist state that is willing to indiscriminately bomb Ukrainian cities and blatantly attack the rules-based international order, including with its blatant and unprovoked nuclear sabre-rattling against the West. Indeed, having engulfed Russian society with its chauvinist and imperialist ideology of “russism,” Moscow is now seeking global revanche to restore its superpower status by openly challenging the democratic world.
Despite being (often undeservedly) welcomed into every available international cooperation mechanism, Russia has proven itself serially incapable of finding its place as a responsible stakeholder in the post-Cold War world. To make up for its lack of economic competitiveness, Moscow has pursued its quest for global power through policies designed to gain leverage over the West – by exploiting existing vulnerabilities and creating new ones.
In the mid-2000s, after firmly consolidating power in Russia, Putin’s regime established a so-called “state capitalist” economy that rewarded select loyal oligarchs and key members of the security apparatus (siloviki) with licence to pillage the country. Russia soon entered a new phase of active rivalry with the West. The Kremlin adopted a calculated strategy that included: creating a disruptive advantage in energy, co-opting business and political elites in the West, corrupting international organizations, and building a global influence network (including propaganda media) to interfere in western democracies.
Moscow’s strategy met no serious resistance. On the contrary, the West – particularly European Union (EU) governments and businesses – ignored obvious security risks to actively engage with Russia. When Putin employed outright aggressive methods to regain dominance in the former Soviet space, democratic countries turned a blind eye. Critically, the EU and NATO’s unwillingness to continue with their eastward expansion left many neighbouring countries – with democratic aspirations and a desire to break away from Moscow’s influence – highly vulnerable to Russian aggression.
Putin’s belligerent ambitions were laid bare in his public speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference. Yet the West was not perturbed. Putin kept signalling that his main interest is in restoring Russia’s “sphere of influence” in the former Soviet space, not directly confronting the West – and western governments were willing to lull themselves into complacency or even complicity. After all, Russia’s revenue from western markets and investments helped Putin’s regime grow stronger at home and more aggressive abroad.
As Putin’s regime grew more emboldened, crossing ever shifting “red lines” without meeting meaningful consequence, numerous businesses and political actors in the democratic world were willing to engage with Moscow. Within the larger geopolitical context, the West mistakenly perceived Russia as a counterbalance to China’s rising global power. As a result, many of Putin’s sins were easily forgiven and forgotten.
For too long, the Kremlin was allowed to pursue political and economic subversion of nearby countries without any repercussions. Tellingly, even after its 2008 war against Georgia, Russia was still rewarded with membership in the World Trade Organization and European permits to build the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline.
Russia’s undeclared and unlawful war on Ukraine in 2014 did little to alter this dynamic. Despite destroying the post-war European security architecture by illegally annexing Crimea, Moscow’s friends in the West still ignored these red flags about the Kremlin’s threat. The price for waging unprovoked war on Ukraine and occupying Ukrainian territory in Crimea and in the Donbass region, as well as Azov and Black Seas, was very small indeed.
Meanwhile, Russia’s war crimes and atrocities in its military campaign in Syria were ignored and the country faced no real consequences for its election interference against dozens of countries, most notably the United States. Indeed, the Kremlin faced only a nominal response to its use of chemical warfare agents and political assassinations on foreign soil.
Against the backdrop, Moscow’s friends in the West were still happy to shake hands and make deals with Putin. The symbol of this strategic corruption is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline – an energy weapon long defended by Russian friends in the EU as “just a commercial project.” Instead of deterring Putin’s criminal pursuits, the West dutifully provided Russia’s corrupt elites with the business and legal framework allowing for their personal enrichment and to launder their dirty money abroad.
Today, Russia is pursuing the complete destruction of an independent democratic nation. It is waging a devastating war on Ukraine from both Russia and Belarus. It is committing war crimes by deliberately targeting and decimating civilian areas and critical infrastructure, even as it resorts to nuclear blackmail. The West has responded by belatedly providing Ukraine with lethal weapons and an extensive (and long overdue) package of economic sanctions against Russia.
The hope is to wear down Putin’s regime in the short- to medium-term, making his presence in Ukraine painful enough that he will choose to withdraw and depriving him of resources for future conquests.
For Putin, however, it is not just about Ukraine; he is also seeking to overturn the rules-based international order. In Putin’s eyes, the West is weak and corrupt, and its power is declining. He believes he can rely on the quiet support of China, which welcomes the decline of the West’s power, and thinks he can find allies in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America to sow instability. In his view, Russia is a power that sets the rules for others as it sees fit.
The West is prone to think that Russia is not an adversary seeking domination. But let us put it plainly: Russia is already at war with the West.
Russia’s pattern of escalating aggression is unmistakable. This is why Putin will press to the bitter end to humiliate the West in Ukraine. He may even seek to expose the EU and NATO’s inability to defend one of its member states, like Lithuania, for example – thereby showing that these organizations are paper tigers, at best. As Russia attempts to erase the peaceful Ukrainian nation from existence, it is time to acknowledge that the Russian regime has no moral boundaries on its belligerent ambitions. Putin’s regime must be stopped to prevent even more destruction.
Roman Sohn is an author, legal expert, and Chairman of the Direct Initiative International Centre for Ukraine. Ariana Gic is a writer and political and legal analyst, and Director of the Direct Initiative International Centre for Ukraine. The authors led a public campaign “Truth for Peace” calling for recognizing Russia as the aggressor state waging unlawful interstate war against Ukraine, and as a rogue state threatening world peace.