In the long run, the West must have a constructive relationship with Russia. But many of those who today prioritize the resumption of dialogue with Putin’s regime are missing an important step: Russian military forces must be defeated first. Only then will the country be compelled to come to terms with the regime’s actions, and only then can we build new relations with a Russia that agrees to live within its own borders.
Today, and for at least the last half-century, two of America’s strongest and most important allies have been Germany and Japan. From the vantage point of 1941, that would have been hard to imagine.
Back in the 1940s, Germany and Japan were denigrated with astonishingly racist and xenophobic hate speech, as America girded itself to fight a global war. Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps, regardless of their constitutional rights. And yet within 10 years of its defeat in World War II, Germany was invited to join NATO, and Japan was well on the way to having a special relationship with the United States as a key ally in East Asia.
Today’s Western commentators fall into two categories: One side speaks with the same sense of moral outrage, vengeance and determination to see an aggressor defeated as did commentators in the early 1940s when speaking about Japan and Germany (albeit largely without the xenophobia.) The other seeks dialogue and normalization with Russia, much as we later achieved with Japan and Germany.
Both sentiments are understandable. But in between lies a crucial step: Japanese and German forces were defeated, and both countries had to come to terms with the actions of their governments before they were welcomed back in the community of nations. We must indeed reach out to the Russian people and seek to normalize relations with a Russian government in the future. But to get there, Putin and his fascist, imperialist ideology must first be defeated in Ukraine. Russia must accept internationally recognized borders.
The defeat of Nazi Germany and of Imperial Japan gave the people of those countries a fresh start. They were able to participate in the creation of a new national ethos, a new government, and a new role in an international community. They accepted responsibility for their prior government’s actions, they accepted their own national borders, and they took part in creating a constructive role for their country in the broader international community.
The Russian people should be given the same chance. They deserve to live in a free and just society; to have a say over who runs their government; and to share in the benefits of an open and prosperous global community. They should know that the world is not against them, but indeed holds out great warmth and hope for their future. The West must communicate its support for these ambitions for the Russian people.
Many Russians are fleeing their country already. They seek to preserve their lives, their wealth, their families, and their opportunities for the future. The West should adopt policies intended to reach out to the Russian people and show that (unlike their own government) we have friendly intentions toward them, if not their governing elite. For example:
- Increase investments in Russian-language broadcasting (e.g., Dozhd, Current Time) that offers Russians genuine news information and a balanced view of the West;
- Support student and exchange visitor visas for those Russians renouncing Putinism;
- Support the Russian political opposition in exile;
- Offer residency to wealthy Russians if they honestly declare all assets, and cooperate with law enforcement in tracking down and squeezing the finances of the Putin regime; and
- Articulate clearly — through a speech by the President or Secretary of State — the positive attitude of the West toward the Russian people, while making clear our objections and opposition to the criminal behavior of the Russian regime.
The West must also be clear, however, that to achieve these aspirations, the Russian people must confront and take responsibility for the crimes committed in their name by Vladimir Putin. Indeed, a special Ukraine war crimes tribunal is needed to assign specific personal responsibility . The Russian people need a reconciliation with history, just as the German and Japanese people did after World War II. Short-circuiting this step, and re-engaging with Putin’s Russia without such a reconciliation will only perpetuate the problem of an aggrieved and aggressive Russia.
There was no such reconciliation after the fall of the Soviet Union. Rather than denounce the crimes of the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia has resurrected the myth of Stalin and glossed over the Holodomor, the USSR’s joint culpability for World War II, the gulag archipelago, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, martial law in Poland, and more. The result is an authoritarian and revanchist Russia that feels justified in attacking its neighbors, and which will do so again if given the chance. It is a far cry from a Russia that is capable of living in peace with, and – one daresay – respecting its neighbors.
As long as President Putin remains in charge, Russia will continue its unsatisfied imperial quest. It will deny the identity and legitimacy of its neighbors, and thereby justify the theft of their territory and the slaughter of their people. No one in Europe or the United States should be comfortable with such an outcome.
Russia’s defeat, its change of leadership, and its acceptance of responsibility for war crimes and of living within its own borders, is a necessary precondition to establishing the normal relations so many in the West desire.
Ambassador Kurt Volker is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. A leading expert in US foreign and national security policy, he served as US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017-2019, and as US Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.