By treating Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as a discrete problem, the West has overlooked the broader strategic and moral dimensions of Moscow’s behavior. A new Western strategy encompassing these dimensions and drawing on the Cold War lessons is urgently needed. Only such a strategy – articulated through a presidential speech and subsequent communications by senior Western officials – can rally needed domestic support, be sustainable and succeed.
During the Cold War, the West had a strong moral narrative explaining why Soviet behavior was wrong and what the United States and its allies stood for. Winston Churchill defined it in his 1946 speech in Fulton, Missouri – the Soviets sought subjugation of other countries; the West aspired to establish freedom and democracy. This rationale galvanized Western policies for decades, and an important component of Western efforts was responding to the stated Soviet justifications for Soviet actions. Moscow’s assertions were challenged and its falsehoods exposed.
Although Russia is no longer a Marxist-Leninist state, President Vladimir Putin is seeking to reverse the consequences of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, which he has termed “a major geopolitical disaster.” Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine is a component of this strategic vision, not isolated misbehavior. Putin outlined this vision in a March 18 speech, billed as the “new Fulton speech” by the Russian media. Putin rejects the existing international system’s legitimacy and portrays Russia as the virtuous and long-suffering victim of Western plots, and therefore entitled to special rights vis-a-vis neighboring states.
Western failure to appreciate Russia’s broader doctrinal narrative – whether in Crimea or eastern Ukraine – has led to a crabbed view of Moscow’s policy. While President Barack Obama and Western officials have challenged specific aspects of Putin’s policies, such as disregard for legal norms, no one has delivered a comprehensive rebuttal to Putin’s vision, recognizing it as a declaration of hostilities against the West and exposing the full range of its pathologies.
Ignoring the ideological and moral aspects of this confrontation undermines support for any robust Western policy – both within the United States, which is preoccupied with domestic problems, and among our European and Asian allies. Meanwhile, Putin’s xenophobia strikes a responsive chord with Western right-wing groups.
Furthermore, our failure to address the moral pitfalls of Russia’s foreign policy helps Putin retain strong support within his borders. The irony here is palpable. During the Cold War, despite Moscow’s efforts to jam Western broadcasts, we were able to explain to the people of the U.S.S.R. that Soviet policies were illegitimate. Now, despite ample opportunities to communicate with the Russian people, we fall conspicuously short.
The United States must lead in articulating a new Western strategy, beginning with a presidential speech that explains why, after decades of efforts to integrate Russia into Western institutions, Putin’s regime must be treated as an adversary. Debunking Putin’s pseudohistorical claims and reminding people that the Soviet Union was a “prison of nations” and that numerous Central and Eastern European countries have joined NATO and the European Union precisely to maintain their independence from Moscow should be at the core of this speech. It should also expose the moral pathologies of Putin’s government, including its authoritarianism, xenophobia, religious intolerance and bigotry against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
Such a speech also would convey to Russia’s people that Putin’s doctrine is incongruous with true Russian interests. Putin’s propaganda and suppression of press freedoms have allowed Moscow to misrepresent the treatment of Russian speakers in Ukraine and hide its role in instigating unrest in that country. They are obscuring the extent to which Russia’s hostile foreign policy is undermining the Russian people’s aspirations to live in a modernized country, with a diversified economy that does not depend predominantly on gas exports. The contrast between Putin’s support for federalism in Ukraine and centralized control in Russia should be a key part of this speech. Russian citizens, after all, possess fewer freedoms than ethnic Russians enjoy in virtually all of Russia’s neighboring countries.
For audiences in the United States and elsewhere, the speech should explain why, despite pressing domestic problems, the United States must counter Putin’s policies. Failure to offer a countervailing narrative would embolden Moscow’s aggression against other countries with significant Russian populations. If Putin’s blatant instigation of ethnic unrest and aggression is left unchallenged, the international system will be destabilized, some countries will seek to acquire nuclear weapons as the only guarantee of their security and other states may invade or dismember their neighbors.
Even the most adroit ideological and moral narrative is no substitute for tough policy decisions by the West. However, without it, they will never be made and implemented.
The writer is a former undersecretary of state for global affairs and a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.