In illegally annexing Crimea, Putin has already tossed aside onto the garbage heap several international agreements bearing Russia’s signature. His stealth invasion of eastern Ukraine has led to more than 5,000 deaths as well as widespread misery and suffering for millions of Ukrainians. And Putin could care less.
So here we are hoping that yet another diplomatic agreement with Russia will bring peace to the Donbass and restore Ukraine’s sovereignty. What President Obama and Europeans like Merkel and Hollande fail to fully realize is that Putin’s Kremlin is the warped moral successor to the Soviet Union.
The Evil Empire had profound contempt for so-called bourgeois ideals such as honesty and respect for the value of human life. In 1940 the Soviets murdered 20,000 Polish officer prisoners of war, and flatly denied that cruel but plain historical fact for half a century. In 1986 the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded, exposing millions of people to lethal radioactive waste while the Soviet leadership desperately sought to deny to the world and its own people that any such accident had occurred.
The Soviet heritage is one of gross lies masquerading as sacred truths. For seven decades speaking the truth was a state crime, and generations of bureaucrats like Putin absorbed the lesson that 2 + 2 does equal 5 if you can jail or murder anyone who dares insist 2 + 2 actually equals 4. Even worse, Putin and his cronies often seem to fall prey to their own falsehoods.
Putin’s Kremlin has been hysterically peddling exactly the same lies as its Soviet predecessors. In 1956 Hungarian “fascists” had to be suppressed by tanks. In 1968 Czechoslovakia had to be invaded to “liberate” that country from “counter-revolutionary deviationism.” And now Kiev’s pro-western democratic government is led by “neo-Nazis” installed in a “CIA coup.”
The lies are deliberate, but they are compounded by the deep paranoia and ignorance of Putin and his Kremlin goons. In the viper’s pit of both Soviet and Russian politics, betrayal and backstabbing are constants of life. To rise in such an environment, successful apparatchiks are the ones who ascribe to others their own qualities of untrustworthiness and viciousness.
And the Kremlin is run by some profoundly ignorant people. Ruthlessness, not intelligence or competence, determines who rises to the top. And so Russian foreign policy is based on the judgment of people who are guided by some wildly uninformed misconceptions about the world. For example, they are convinced that the recent fall in oil prices is some sort of CIA/ Goldman Sachs plot to destabilize the Putin regime, because they simply don’t understand how global energy markets actually work.
In Putin’s worldview, a democratic revolution against his kleptocratic ally in Kiev is a danger to his own misrule of Russia, so ipso facto, it must be the work of neo-Nazis and the CIA, and therefore fomenting violence in Donetsk and Lugansk is a valid response to external aggression against Russia, and since telling the Russian public he is defending them from foreign threats is good for his approval ratings, it might as well all be true. And the Russian public so far eagerly accept the Kremlin’s outrageously false propaganda as gospel truth.
So what is to be done? It is a real dilemma, but we can’t just wish it away with unrealistic hopes for diplomacy alone. We can and should provide Ukraine with the means of defending itself, and appeal to the logic that Putin understands best, that rank aggression will be met with all means necessary, and that at some point his adventures carry a cost he ultimately can’t afford. Doing so carries real risks, but the greater risk is in counting on Putin’s goodwill and willingness to honor his word.