Twenty-six countries have now joined in solidarity with Britain and expelled more than a hundred Russian envoys over the poisoning of a Russian ex-spy and his daughter in England. In return, Moscow plans its own retaliation.
It is difficult to predict if this expulsion battle might escalate to a serious confrontation. And that’s why Western leaders must be clear on what message of peace to send to the Russian people.
The message should be that Russians can still make a choice on how to be ruled. President Vladimir Putin may be popular, a result largely of heavy media manipulation, elimination of key opponents, and an exaggeration of foreign threats. But at the root, it is popularity based on a false choice between a promise of stability, safety, and national greatness over a society built on liberty and democracy.
In truth, Russians can have both.
The March 4 murder attempt on a Russian traitor fits a pattern of recent actions aimed at ensuring obedience to the Kremlin and, as Putin puts, to maintaining national unity around a national identity.
He often reminds Russians that the country suffered two revolutions in the 20th century, both of which disrupted the country’s traditions and culture. Now he asserts that Russia should claim its rightful role as a “state civilization.”
He defines that civilization as one “reinforced by the Russian people, Russian language, Russian culture, Russian Orthodox Church and the country’s other traditional religions.” And to achieve this unique identity requires a strong ruler who embodies this mission and the state.
Based on past speeches, Putin also believes the project of building Russia as a distinct civilization is threatened by what he calls “extreme Western-style liberalism.” Russia has its own values, he says, and they may not include the universal values of individual rights, an open society, rule of law, or true plural democracy. In fact, those values could threaten the “state civilization” of Russia, especially his strong rule.
This is the real struggle, more so than tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats or other flare-ups between the West and Russia. Is the world really divided between democratic rule and the notion of nationalist civilization?
The West’s responses to any Kremlin provocation must include the idea that Russia can be built on more than culture, traditions, bloodlines, or “traditional religions.” All people are capable of expressing democratic principles such as equality, freedom, or respect for minority views.
In fact, Putin’s attempt to ensure Russia remains a great power will require that he loosen his iron grip and open up society to alternative views that allow innovation and growth. The economy is one-fourteenth the size of that of United States and struggling to survive.
Today’s civilizations thrive on civil rights, or a view of the individual as empowering the state, not the other way around.