Dealing with Putin: Appeasement is no option - Where Stephen M. Walt is wrong

On February 9th the magazine Foreign Policy published an article of Harvard-Professor Stephen M. Walt who argues against arming Ukraine (“Why Arming Kiev is a Really, Really Bad Idea” ( It is founded on several false assumptions.

Ukraine is of great strategic importance for Europe and the United States of America

First: Stephen M. Walt argues that Ukraine is not of strategic interest for the US. That seems shortsighted and focussed merely on military aspects. Politically Ukraine is of enormous strategic interest for the United States of America. If Putins wins lasting control over parts of Ukraine, two important allies of the US will be severly damaged, maybe even destroyed: Nato and EU. To sacrifice a big part of a country (and its people) that is struggling for self-determination and democracy and that fights to defend its territory against foreign-led rebels would massively destroy trust in both organizations. This is true for countries bordering Russia (having experienced soviet occupation or dominance) as well as for countries in western Europe. What should the people of Latvia or Georgia make out of that? Why shouldn’t Mr. Putin repeat his success there?

If a community (like EU or Nato) which proclaims to be based on values (freedom, democracy, rule of law and so on) betrays these values under pressure of authoritarian regimes, it is not a community anymore, but in shambles. This is exactly what Mr.Putin wants to achieve.

Russia´s aggressive politics made it´s neighbours seek Nato-membership

Second: According to Prof. Walt Nato is expanding endlessly. Well, it is open to all European countries that want to join it and fulfill certain criteria. That’s why for some time Putin wanted Russia to become a member of Nato and EU. But then, for EU-membership, he could not or did not want to meet the necessary requirements. For him the wish to join EU was ok, but not for others? In fact it was not Nato that asked Russias neighbours to join it, but it were these countries themselves who ran towards Nato, seeking protection against Russia. They knew why.

And in contrast to some myths, Nato – after the Fall of the Berlin wall – never promised that it would not expand eastward. MichaiI Gorbatchov him-self described those assertions as wrong. He pointed out, that during the crucial 2+4-talks in 1990 there was no reason to even talk about it, since the Warsaw Pact still existed.

As for Ukraine: The country sought Nato-membership after Russias aggression against Georgia, after the war in Caucasus showed what it meant to be exposed to a dangerous neighbour like Putins Russia. The man who likes to be photographed riding bare-chested on a horse himself has pushed Ukraine towards the west, towards seeking shelter under Natos umbrella.

According to Stephen M. Walt the Ukraine-crisis began because the West tried to “move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit”. This implies (as another sentence in which he talks about Russias allegedly rightful interests in Ukraine) that Russia has a kind of natural right to demand that its neighbours stay closer to it than to other countries – whatever this means for the welfare and freedom of the affected people. And whatever its people want. That´s an interesting position since it grants Russia special privileges in what Moscow calls “near abroad” while an American invasion in Mexico (part of it´s “backyard”) would probably (correctly) be regarded as unacceptable.

The Russian president is obviously greedy for power and personal glory

Third: Prof.Walt writes that deterrence works if states act aggressively “because their leaders are greedy, seeking some sort of personal glory or are ideologically driven to expand”. Well, Mr.Putin is obviously very greedy – for power. Internally, where he suppresses critics with all the methods dictators (which he is not yet) usually use to fight opposition (Chodorkowski, Pussy Riot, Nawalny and so on) and dissidents. That’s why a Putin-led Russia could never meet EU-criteria (rule of law). In the same way he despises the democratic rights of internal critics he tramples on the souverain rights of Ukraine and violates international law.

Not because he is paranoid, insecure and afraid of Nato (he knows very well that it is weak, meager equipped, not able to move 5000 Soldiers within two days, slow in decision making, often divided in strategic questions and obviously not at all aggressive). As the “Economist” recently noted correctly: “Far from menacing Russia, NATO countries have slashed defence spending, just as Russia is rearming.”

Putin is neither paranoid nor insecure

So contrary to the mentioned thesis Mr. Putin acts aggressively and offensive because he wants Russia to be influential, powerful, dominant beyond Russia´s borders – without offering it`s neighbours an attractive and luring model for a modern society, a successful economy and a set of attractive values to live for. Since of course no one feels drawn towards such a country, Putin does what stubborn children do when they don’t get peacefully what they want: He stomps his feet and shouts “But I want”. He is not driven by an ideology but obviously by the very dangerous idea of collecting “old Russian soil” which – if successfull – would make him a glorified leader in a country that also as a result of massive desinformation seems drunken by patriotism.

A warm embrace won´t be enough – What is needed is a line in the sand

To think that Mr.Putin needs to be warmly embraced to make him a peaceful and reliable partner means to underestimate him and to misjudge his determination to project Russian military power (the only power Russia has left) onto weaker countries in his “orbit”.

What to do:

In dealing with ruthless, aggressive and powerful states one has to show great resolve and to draw a line in the sand. There are five subjects that seem most important:

1. The option to arm Ukraine with weapons, to strengthen its defensive military capabilities and thus help Kiev to exercise it´s right to protect it´s borders must stay on the table. To leave the country – in light of Russia´s aggression – unprotected would be a shame for western democracies and an invitation for Putin to move on, for example in Moldowa.

2. Nato-members must at least strengthen their presence in (Member- ) states like Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. They need to build permament bases for several thousands of its troops. However loud Mr. Putin will protest against such “western aggression against his peaceful Russia” this is necessary to reassure all Nato-members that the alliance is stable, able and willing to defend itself. That it is not going to let something like in Ukraine happen again. This means: A transparent change in Nato-strategy, the allocation of a lot more money to Nato and exhausting efforts to explain the nature of the current Russian regime to the people. This might be tough, especially in Germany where an old subtle anti-Amerikanism, a strange feeling of a proximity between the German and Russian culture and a secret admiration of Putins “strength” have fostered a remarkably big camp of Putin-Versteher.

3. EU and the US should not weaken the sanctions until the Moscow-supported rebels hand over power (also on Crimea, don’t forget that!) to an democratically elected regional Government inside Ukraine.

4. Europe and the US must do everything they can to start a Wirtschaftswunder in Ukraine. That will take massive reforms by Kiev – and a lot of time and money and western resolve to counter possible damaging actions by Moscow. But economic success would be a game-changer. The visible welfare of people in a free, just and open society will in the end be more effective than any weapon Putin can fire. A model for this approach is post war western financial support for Germany.

5. Western countries will have to develop strategies to counter the methods Putin used in his hybrid warfare in order to be better prepared for possible Russian aggressions in future.

So beware of appeasement! In his Foreign Policy Mr. Putin acts like one of his infamous predeccessors. Like Stalin he disguises his true objectives behind empty democratic phrases, he creates facts using military power and exploits the western reluctance to engage in hard diplomatic or even military disputes (a telling read is “Hitler and Stalin: parallel lives” by Alan Bullock). Mr. Putin just added some modern fine-tuning. Encouraged by western lack of resolve he might become as dangerous for peace as Stalin. So the worst answer to his actions would be to have western “Chamberlains” embrace and thus strengthen the man who pushes (on Foreign Policy) Stalinism 3.0.


Olaf Jahn

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