Isolating Russia is neither in power nor in the interest of the West
The writer is president of the Center for Liberal Strategies, Sofia, and a permanent member of the IWM Vienna
While the world was reeling from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one question remained unanswered. In whose name was war declared? Are the majority of Russians hostage to Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions, or is Russian society basically Putin’s equivalent?
During the first days of the invasion, most Europeans leaned toward the hostage theory and expected ordinary Russians to voice their opposition. It took the revelation of the unfathomable atrocities to Bucha for public opinion to change, reconsidering Putin’s war as Russia’s war.
The total control of the media by the Kremlin and the growing repression were apparently no longer enough to explain, let alone justify, the silence of Russian society. Did the Russians not know the truth about Bucha or did they not want to know it? Many Europeans were outraged by the way the country’s citizens swallowed their saliva and turned a blind eye to the barbarity of their army.
After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, an exclusion zone was created around the reactor that exploded. For Europeans and for Western politics in general, Russia has become a geopolitical Chernobyl: a site of moral disaster, a place of danger to be isolated. And so many Europeans today dream of a world without Russia.
In their imagination, the West no longer consumes Russia’s energy resources. Cultural contacts are broken and the borders of Europe are fortified. It would be as if Russia had disappeared. Even pathologically optimistic business leaders see little opportunity to reinvest in Russian markets in the coming years. And as long as Putin remains in power, a significant easing of Western sanctions seems a distant prospect.
Many Western policymakers have already given up hope for change in Russia. Instead, they focus on measures to limit the country’s ability to achieve its foreign policy goals.
But any attempt to shut down Russia would be very different from the Western policy of containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. As George Kennan conceived, containment was based on the assumption that over time the Soviet regime was destined to collapse due to its internal contradictions. A Chernobyl-style isolation would imply that Russia can never change.
The Cold War was rooted in a discourse in which the regime was to blame but the people declared innocent. The Soviet Union was portrayed as a prison and Soviet leaders were never recognized as legitimate representatives of their society.
In contrast to this idea of a perverse regime and a repressed people among whom change is still imaginable, a policy which seeks to create an “isolated Russian zone” unconsciously adopts a discourse in which Russia as a civilization is immutable.
There are myriad moral reasons why Russia should be ghettoized as a geopolitical Chernobyl. But treating Russia as a collective Putin would be a strategic mistake. Here’s why.
First, this notion will mainly benefit the Russian leader. This unwittingly gives him the legitimacy to speak on behalf of the Russian people. Worse, it vindicates his twisted narrative that the only Russia the West can tolerate is a weak or defeated Russia. If Russia is a geopolitical Chernobyl, the only reasonable strategy for any freedom-loving Russian is to rush for the exits.
Second, a strategy of isolation is likely to fail because it closes interest in what is happening in Russia. He predicts that the Russians’ inability to speak out against the war means that the country will never change its attitude towards it. He will miss the fact that more than a small number of Russians support the war not because they support the regime but because they irrationally hope that the war will change the regime.
Opposition minds hope that a Russian military defeat in Ukraine will bring down Putin. Many of his supporters relish the destruction of the offshore elite despised and supported by Putin. In the words of a famous rock singer, after the West grabbed the property of the oligarchs, Russians finally became “equal as in 1917”.
Third, betting on a world without Russia is ultimately futile because the non-Western world, which may not be in favor of the Kremlin war, has little desire to isolate Russia. Many see the current barbarism as disgusting but not exceptional. They practice a worthless realism. Many states that US President Joe Biden has invited to his democracy summit have not imposed sanctions on Russia.
The Russian military offensive in the Donbass only intensifies the clash between those who see the country as morally irreparable and those who see it as an inescapable reality of world politics. The offensive will force European public opinion to choose between “the party of peace” (those who insist that the priority of the West is to end hostilities as soon as possible, even at the cost of major concessions from Ukraine) and “the justice party” (those who insist that the priority should be to expel Russian troops from Ukrainian territory, even at the cost of a protracted war).
Peace and justice do not rhyme in European history. Whether you call the invasion of Ukraine Putin’s war or the Russian war is not a matter of taste but a strategic choice. It signals the West’s expectations of its relationship with post-Putin Russia whenever it occurs.