The first and most important factor to realise about Russia and Russian actions today is that the Russian regime under Putin does not equate to the Russian people. The majority of Russian's are not that far removed from the British. They drink a lot of tea, have jobs and are worried about the future, and much like the British not that long ago; they are a people still coming to terms with the decline of their empire of the Soviet Union, made worse by the economic turmoil of the 1990's and the feeling that they have lost their place in the world. Where once the state offered a large degree of social security, now Russians are faced with a far harsher world of privatisation, international trade, and global finance.
Enter into this arena a Romantic like Putin, and make no mistake Putin's view on the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of Russian prestige most certainly do make him long for a romanticise past, in which Russia was the world’s only other superpower. And it is therefore no wonder Russians flock to a man who promises stability, security and a heightened level of respect from other nations on the international stage. Recent foreign policy actions in Crimea have seen record domestic support for Putin as Russian citizens are presented with an apparent reversal of years of Russian decline, and the first expansion of Russian borders since the 1940’s.
However what is equally important to realise is that the once democratically elected Putin government has now most certainly become a ruthless regime, media freedom in Russia is a joke with much of the published news at best radically and dangerously different separated from the truth and at worst little more than propaganda. There is imprisonment, intimidation, and an absence of the rule of law for many Russians, and for those in power there is corruption, cronyism and the steady decay of Russian institutions. Putin's regime may argue that it is strengthening Russia on the international stage, but it is doing so by undermining Russia from within.
For the international community this is seen as both an enormous betrayal and a real and present danger to European nations. To the minds of many in both the US and Britain, the international community went to great lengths to reintegrate Russia after the fall of the Berlin wall, helping it attain World Trade Organisation membership, working as a partner within such bodies as the NATO–Russia Council and tentatively setting it on the stage for potential EU and NATO membership a little way down the line. In response it has seen Russia act in the worst traditions of realpolitik, tinkering with countries around its borders, supporting separatist regimes and even, as now in Ukraine, providing arms and troops to fight on another nation’s soil. Particularly to the Americans this is seen as a complete rejection of everything they have worked to achieve, with and for Russia, and there is a great deal of real disappointment with Russian leadership. Which has slowly translated into a great deal of momentum towards finding a more robust solution.
Equally in the short term Putin has played a pretty disastrous game, up until recently the view amongst many leaders internationally was along the lines of Putin is someone we can work with (at least in one form or another). He might even have got away with the brilliant piece of manoeuvring which saw Russia acquire Crimea with remarkably little violence and international condemnation if he had have deescalated immediately. However his repeated denials of Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine, in stark contrast to the clear evidence of Russian presence on the ground, has resulted in many finally beginning to realise that Putin is not like us. His goals are radically different to ours, the methods he is willing to use contradictory to international norms, and the ability to reason to a peacefully settlement declining every moment his regime remains in power. At the very least common thinking would argue that Putin should try to deescalate matter in eastern Ukraine and try to and push through a peace deal with Ukraine before the NATO summit, to give political leaders in Europe who do not want to spend more on defence and rebasing, an excuse not to (i.e. the situation has resolved itself). Instead as we have seen he escalates the situation, prompting a more robust response and reinforcing NATO in the minds of the Russian population as an existential threat to Russian borders.
So where do we go from here? Part of the challenge is for Europe, memories of the cold war run deep, and many Eastern European countries will likely remain deeply wary about Russia and Russian intentions for many years to come. Yet equally we have to realise that ultimately Russia is a major European power, and an engaged, constructive Russia is something that could be very positive for Europe, and for many Russian citizens the mere recognition of Russia as the power that it is, even in its post-Soviet Union state, would be sufficient to secure their national identity and pride. For a Russia like this EU membership and indeed NATO membership may be something theoretically offered in the future. However, Russia as it stands at the moment, under Putin's regime, is not at all the type of Russia we would ever want to invite closer into the European and Transatlantic family of nations. Might cannot ever equate to right, European nations cannot allow themselves to be bullied into undesired directions, and we must always make clear that whilst we offer great opportunities for those nations which are willing to work with us, we will equally and robustly always fight against dangerous tyrannies who deliberately seek to use violence to achieve their goals.
Many years ago in the face of comprehensive international pressure over the Suez crisis Britain was forced to concede that it was no longer the world empire it once was, and it took many years for us as a nation to come to terms with what it means to be a post imperial power. For the Russians if the International community stands firm so Ukraine could be a similar clarifying Suez moment for Russia. A failure in Ukraine would weaken the Putin regime in the eyes of his people and force it to seriously reconsider both its position and the type of legacy it wants to leave. Whilst for the international community determined action in Ukraine should be a reaffirmation of everything we believe in, that we stand united in the rejection of violence, that every individual has the right to live in peace, and that we will act collectively to ensure that those who would reject these conventions are not allowed to continue unchecked.
Senior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of the United Kingdom