James Nixey
Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme
The West should not be fooled by Vladimir Putin’s so-called U-turn over Ukraine. To respond, Western governments need to be clear about both Russian motives and perceptions and their own vested interests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a military parade on 9 May 2014 in Sevastopol, Russia. Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a military parade on 9 May 2014 in Sevastopol, Russia. Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.

Much is being read into Vladimir Putin’s latest move, following his statements calling for the postponement of a regional referendum and in support of the wider Ukrainian elections on 25 May. These went together with a promise – as yet unfulfilled – to pull Russian troops back from the Ukrainian border. Is it a ruse or is it genuine? Is it a result of sanctions? Or diplomatic pressure? Or, as Keir Giles convincingly explains, is it designed to wrong-foot subsequent western responses?

It may well only be President Putin who knows the answer. Throughout the Ukraine crisis, Putin has appeared to take decisions independently, sometimes circumventing not only the country’s decision-making apparatus, but even the very narrow elite closest to the president. The result has resembled ad hoc policy making, yet it is also deliberate and designed to create confusion West of Moscow.

Despite – or rather because of – this latest uncertainty, the West must be clear-minded in its next actions:

First, wait. Do not jump to unnecessarily hasty conclusions. Putin told journalists on 4 March that Russia was not considering the annexation of Crimea. That was a lie. Russian leaders consistently claimed the anonymous troops that took over Crimea were not Russian. That too was a lie. The proportion of truth in Russian media narratives and leadership statements is shrinking to vanishing point. Putin wanting free and fair elections in Ukraine, as some now believe, makes no more sense than turkeys voting for Christmas. A newly legitimized Ukrainian government, recommencing a relationship with the West, would be a huge blow for the Kremlin. 

Second, keep your eyes on the ball. Ukraine’s future as a unified state is on a knife-edge. It needs support before, during and after the national elections. Ukraine has never been closer to state failure and civil war. That was not Russia’s preference at the beginning, but it will do. Russia is quite capable of pushing Ukraine over the brink under the principle of ’if we can’t have it, no one can’. 

Third, at the same time, understand that this is part of a wider problem over how European security should be organized (as articulated by Andrew Monaghan). This is ultimately a fundamental disagreement about the freedom and independence of countries around Russia’s border. Russia is effectively saying these countries lie within its Cold War-era protectorate. This must be rejected unambiguously, and (alas) continually. In fact, if we are to do the right thing by Ukraine, Russia’s call for privileged interests with - and non-alignment among - post-Soviet nations must be ignored – and the West must in turn plan for the consequences of course.

Fourth, come to terms with the idea that the financial cost to the West of sanctions against Russia will be small. Russian international investments in London only account for 0.5 per cent of total European international assets invested there. Financial services provided to Russia only amount to one per cent of total UK exports of financial services, business services and insurance. Russia’s vulnerability, noted by many elsewhere, is far greater. The costs to the UK and its EU partners should be seen as an investment in the future of European security, alongside the essential increases in defence budgets. 

Fifth and finally, try not to score own goals – in all sectors. When policy notes were photographed entering Downing Street, the scandal was not that they were disclosed, but what they contained - a recommendation to put the interests of Russian business in the City of London ahead of the future of Ukraine. The BBC using employees of Kremlin-backed Russia Today as reporters and interviewees is unworthy of its standards of journalistic impartiality; CEOs declaring “business as usual” with Russia (and then finding it is not) looks silly; the inability to explain what the West has done in, say, Kosovo or Libya is simply inept. Not least, senior government advisers and members of the House of Lords saying that there will have to be recognition of and accommodation to Russia’s interests is symptomatic of the pernicious and pervasive financial influence which creates vested interests in promoting the Russian line - or simply of ignorance about Russia. These are all easily avoidable mistakes. 

On this last point, ignorance about Russia is a common enough affliction. This is a reflection of the fact that for the past 20 years, the primary interest in Russia has been in making money there. Upton Sinclair said that it is ‘very difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it’. Governments, too, have been prevented from addressing the Russia problem by the wider (and false) narrative of positive development trajectories, and of Russia as a nation in transit to democracy. That has to change now.

If any good can come of this crisis – the worst between Russia and the West since the 1960s – Western governments can no longer ignore the evidence of Vladimir Putin’s hard-line nationalism, the Kremlin’s true ambitions and its determination to pursue them at the cost of others. Better policy should, therefore, arise from this. But to be truly effective, it may have to wait for a post-Putin era. As this crisis and countless EU-Russia summits testify, the current regime is simply not interested in international cooperation to any greater end than its own demands being met.

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