Maximilian Popp

The West and the Ukraine Crisis It’s Time To Treat Putin Like an Adversary, Not a Partner

Maximilian Popp
A DER SPIEGEL Editorial By Maximilian Popp
A DER SPIEGEL Editorial By Maximilian Popp
NATO member states need to take a confrontational stance toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition to economic sanctions, they should also supply weapons to Ukraine. This is the only way to prevent a Russian invasion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a celebration in Moscow in March commemorating the seventh anniversary of the annexation of Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin at a celebration in Moscow in March commemorating the seventh anniversary of the annexation of Crimea

Foto: Alexei Druzhinin / AP

Vladimir Putin had been in office for only three years when he made a decision that would shape the course of his presidency: He had the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky arrested and his oil company Yukos broken up. Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia at the time, closely connected to decision-makers in the Kremlin and the West. Few inside or outside Russia thought it possible that the government would dare to go after him.

Khodorkovsky himself mistakenly assumed that his friends in Europe and the United States would come to his aid if worse came to worst. By having the entrepreneur locked away for 10 years for tax evasion and fraud, Putin not only clarified the question of power in Russia. He also picked up some important foreign policy insight: When the going gets tough, the West buckles.

DER SPIEGEL 3/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 3/2022 (January 15th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

Europeans and Americans Underestimate Putin

To this day, Putin remains traumatized by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which he experienced as a KGB officer in Dresden. He has made it his life’s work to restore Russia to world power status. That’s one reason he moved to annex Crimea in 2014 in violation of international law and interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. It’s why he provided his backing to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, one of the worst war criminals of the 21st century. Europeans and Americans underestimated Putin’s destructiveness – and they let him have his way.

Now, Russia is further inflaming the conflict with the West by amassing some 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine. Although Russian and Western diplomats spoke this week, there are growing signs that the negotiations are just a pretext for the Kremlin leader to invade Ukraine soon. Putin cannot live with a pro-Western democracy in his own backyard.

Russian military vehicles: Is Putin planning to invade Ukraine soon?

Russian military vehicles: Is Putin planning to invade Ukraine soon?

Foto: HANDOUT / AFP

The Americans and the Europeans have long tried to contain the Russian president through dialogue. In vain. Now, it’s time for a radical change in strategy. The West needs to drive up the price of invading Ukraine so massively that it is too high even for Putin. And it can only do so by seeking confrontation – diplomatically, economically and, indirectly, also militarily.

Putin has established an autocracy in Russia. He has for the most part brought the press and judiciary into line. And yet it is important to him to maintain a façade of democracy and the rule of law. Russia is still one of 47 members of the Council of Europe. Moscow, to be sure, made a mockery of the body by ignoring decisions made by its most important organ, the European Court of Human Rights, in the Navalny case, to name one example. Still, the Council of Europe has so far only been able to agree to a temporary suspension of Russia. Putin’s threats of war against Ukraine would be a good reason to initiate expulsion proceedings against Moscow.

Symbolism Doesn't Impress Putin

More painful for the Kremlin would be economic sanctions. But they must be far tougher than the penalties imposed by the U.S. and Europe following the annexation of Crimea. The German government's hope to continue with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is irresponsible. The pipeline, which has already been completed, can’t possibly be put into operation for as long as Putin still hasn’t withdrawn his soldiers from the Ukrainian border. That needs to be the clear message from Berlin. The U.S. and the EU could also target Russian state-owned companies like Gazprom. The most far-reaching step would be to remove Russia from the SWIFT international payment system, which would effectively cut it off from the global economy.

All these measures would also affect countries in the West. Germany, for example, imports more than half of its gas from Russia. But this price will have to be paid, because it would be naïve to believe that Putin can be warded off with symbolic gestures.

Lastly, NATO should finally move to deliver lethal weapons to Ukraine. Germany has been one of the main opponents standing in the way of doing so. Normally, security policymakers rightly warn against exporting weapons to crisis areas, but in this case, it is a matter of deterring an aggressor. Putin is likely to be less willing to invade Ukraine if he faces fierce military resistance.

The Russian president is seeking to weaken the West by dividing it. This makes it all the more important for Europeans and Americans to stand together in the Ukraine crisis. So far, that has only been halfway successful. Not least because Germany finally needs to take Putin for what he is: an adversary, not a partner.