Putin's chance not to be a Russian bully

Russia's reaction to the Ukraine crisis could fulfill a stereotype of a Russia fearful of losing a buffer state. Or it can lead to a Russian identity befitting the modern world.

AP Photo
Pro-Russian demonstrators march with a huge Russian flag during a protest in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine Feb. 27. Ukraine's acting interior minister says troops and police have been put on high alert after dozens of men seized government buildings in the Crimea region.

No one likes to be seen as a stereotype. Yet as Moscow flexes its muscles toward Ukraine, many leaders in the West claim Russia is acting according to a common view of the country: so insecure and fearful of invasion that it bullies its neighbors into acting as buffer states.

In coming days, President Vladimir Putin has a chance to prove them wrong. Instead of threatening Ukraine with a massive military exercise and turmoil in the Crimean Peninsula, he can work with Europe and the United States to create a stable Ukraine that is inclusive of its Russian-speaking minority. Splitting Ukraine apart would only worsen Russia’s vulnerability as a large landmass with no natural borders.

The West must act to prevent Russia from feeling isolated after its political ally in Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, lost power because of mass protests. It can invite Mr. Putin to join it in offering fresh aid to the new government in Kiev. With the success of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia may be in a cooperative mood, dropping a tendency toward a cold-war-style struggle for dominance in a zero-sum contest for power.

Russia’s future lies with Europe despite Putin’s attempt to bring Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine into a Moscow-centric Eurasian Union. Like the US, Russia can be both a great power and one that shares power with other countries.   

Russia’s fears of the West (and even more so, China) cannot be addressed by threatening it. As Germany has discovered, embracing Russia can bring Moscow in from the cold. “We have to stop permanently humiliating Russia and help it overcome its paranoia and inferiority complex,” said Joachim Bitterlich, a former German diplomat who helped reunite Germany after the Soviet empire collapsed, in an interview with Reuters.

For decades, astute Moscow-watchers have painted the Russians as insecure. The famed American diplomat who framed US containment of the Soviet Union, George Kennan, said that Russia is a “tragically injured and spiritually diminished country.”

“One must remember that they are basically insecure people, and can be driven by fear or concern for their prestige to do things that are not in their best interests or in ours,” he wrote.

A similar view comes from Robert Kaplan, author of the recent book “The Revenge of Geography,” who recently stated:

“Vladimir Putin is just a normal Russian autocrat who looks out at the world from the point of view of Russia’s geography. What he sees and knows is that Russia encompasses half the longitudes of the earth, yet it has a population smaller than Bangladesh. And it has no natural borders in the west towards Europe, which meant that not only did the French and the Germans invade in the guise of Hitler and Napoleon, but so did the Swedes, the Poles, and the Lithuanians in earlier times of Russian history.”

That may be a convenient view of Russia. But the Ukraine crisis offers an opportunity for Putin not to live up to a stereotype. Countries today have become too dependent on each other for peace and prosperity to be guided primarily by their fears.

Ukraine need not be a defeat for Putin or a reason to be a bully. It can be an opportunity to affirm a Russian identity that other countries can admire.

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