The Kremlin keeps us guessing. A big Russian military onslaught on Ukraine may be imminent. But the lesson of the past weeks is about the information war. Russia has successfully framed the discussion in Western diplomacy and the media, sowing dismay in Ukraine and division among its friends.
As a commentator, I try to fight back. Here are seven things I have stressed in dozens of interviews and phone calls in recent days that every foreign news outlet and decision-maker should know about Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the West.
- This should not be called a “crisis”, because it is not new. If you are surprised, you simply show that you were not paying attention for the past months, years, and indeed decades. Russia’s bullying approach to its neighbors was visible in the 1990s to anyone who had the wit to look. Lennart Meri, the then Estonian president, gave a stark warning of the danger in a speech in Hamburg in 1994. Many others from what was then the “ex-Soviet region” also told decision-makers in Paris, Berlin, London, Washington, and elsewhere of the looming threat from a neo-imperialist Russia run by thugs and crooks. These warnings were ignored. The people who delivered them were patronized and belittled. The countries of the “old West” should show some humility, and perhaps even contrition for this.
- In particular, outsiders’ ability to ignore the fact that 14,000 Ukrainians have been killed, and many tens of thousands have had their lives ruined, since Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014, is shameful. The question is not “Will Russia invade Ukraine?” It already did. Moreover, the occupation of Crimea and Russia’s creation of tinpot satrapies in eastern Ukraine are already an outrage. Merely regaining that status quo should not be the goal of Western policy.
- Russian fears of invasion or encirclement are manufactured. No neighboring country (apart perhaps from China) has remotely the military capability to attack Russia by land. A country wishing to attack Russia with modern missiles can do so from anywhere. But Russia’s own nuclear arsenal can strike anywhere on the planet.
- NATO enlargement is not the result of any broken promise by the West. If Russia did not bully its neighbors they would have no reason to join a defensive alliance.
- Diplomacy alone will not solve this problem. Discussing Russia’s manufactured grievances about NATO expansion legitimizes them. So avoid that. Instead talk about other urgent topics: arms control for example. The agenda is huge: all kinds of nuclear weapons, space, conventional forces, confidence-building, notification of exercises. We talked to the Brezhnev Kremlin about nuclear weapons. We can do the same with the Putin regime.
- The real issue is democracy. The Ukrainian president won an election as a political outsider, campaigning against a wealthy incumbent. That has not happened in Russia and will not, so long as the Putin regime has any say in the matter. This is a formidable counter-example to the Russian regime’s political and economic model. Hence, the real issue is the Kremlin’s deadly fear of even Ukraine’s current flawed and stumbling democracy, pluralism, and openness.
- President Volodymyr Zelensky was not only a political outsider. He was from a minority: Jewish and a native Russian-speaker. His success thus belies Kremlin claims about linguistic chauvinism and right-wing extremism in Ukraine. It shows how Ukraine is not “divided” along linguistic lines. It is a multilingual country where the choice of language is a complex and fluid question with private, social, cultural, and historical dimensions. The Kremlin thinks — and wishes — that speaking Russian reflects geopolitical orientation. It doesn’t.