Sudden moves bring out deep-seated insecurities. Vladimir Putin’s adventure in Crimea was a Rorschach moment in international affairs: Everybody read into it what they wanted to see. In Canada, retired diplomats lined up to tell reporters that Stephen Harper’s response proved he’s a lousy diplomat. Around the world, armchair generals decided Putin had moved because Barack Obama is weak. “As an expression of disdain for a U.S. president,” George F. Will wrote, “Putin’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula is symmetrical with Leonid Brezhnev’s invasion of Afghanistan late in Carter’s presidency.”
Symmetry can work at radically different scales, so Putin doesn’t actually have to send 115,000 Russian soldiers into Ukraine, as Brezhnev did into Afghanistan, for Will to have a point, I suppose. It’s closer to the truth as it stood this week to call Crimea a wee miniature of Afghanistan, at best. But Will’s next point is even more of a stretcher: “Putin’s contribution to the miniaturization of Obama comes in the context of Obama’s self-inflicted wound—Obamacare, which . . . may linger as ruinously for Obama as the Iranian hostage crisis did for Carter.” Here we begin to see the “highly characteristic shuffle” that Northrop Frye spotted in people who want to make facts fit their conclusions instead of the other way around.
Presidential weakness or strength doesn’t historically have much to do with Russian adventures. When the Soviet Union was founded by treaty in 1922, Warren Harding was president. When Nikita Khrushchev sent tanks into Hungary in 1956, Dwight Eisenhower was president. I’m pretty sure Ike is still in George Will’s good books. When George W. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes in 2001 and “got a sense of his soul,” Obama was nowhere to be seen. Russian leaders sometimes send tanks on hunting expeditions; not only do weak presidents not tempt them, strong ones don’t slow them down. The Polish army repelled the Russians from Warsaw in 1920. The Finns fought them to a draw in 1940. Western democracies were no help in either fight.
Nor should anyone assume Putin is acting from a position of strength just because he moved first. He’s had a lousy year. When 2014 began, a pliable and deeply corrupt interlocutor was in office in Kyiv, Viktor Yanukovych—not quite Moscow’s puppet, but close enough. Ukraine’s population was divided between pro-Russian and pro-European factions. European leaders barely even realized they were in a fight. Putin, who did, was waving around billions of rubles to entice Ukrainian co-operation. But his overtures were too cartoonish, Yanukovych’s responses too Pavlovian. Amazingly, the Ukrainian population—especially in the western part of the country, but to some extent right across it—chose Europe, rejected Putin and evicted Yanukovych. The Putin-directed skirmishes in Crimea will probably only confirm the wisdom of their choice. Before too many years go by, Ukraine will probably be in the European Union. Vlad Putin’s madcap weekend occupation of Crimea will be remembered as a hard push that helped speed that happy day.
So is Putin a problem that will solve itself? Not quite. The West can do little to hinder him if he wants to send trucks into some backwater where much of the population is Russian and the locals aren’t ready for a serious fight. But the West has been doing a lot to help him, and it’s time to stop.
Stephen Harper’s first G8 summit after his 2006 election was the first a Russian had ever hosted, in St. Petersburg, where Harper joined more experienced leaders in consecrating what Anne Applebaum called “the principle that authoritarian governments can receive the imprimatur of the international political establishment—as long as they are rich enough.” Before that summit I invited Harper, at a Quebec City news conference, to criticize Putin’s record on democracy and human rights. The Prime Minister didn’t bite. He was too busy trying to get Canadian companies access to Russian natural-gas reserves.
But Canada is a penny-ante player when it comes to bending democratic principles in hopes of landing Russian cash. Britain’s economy runs on the laundered money of Russian oligarchs. Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, used to be Gerhard Schröder’s chief of staff before Schröder found a job with a branch of the Russian energy giant Gazprom. One of the most satisfying sounds last week was the change in tone when Angela Merkel, an uneasy coalition partner of Steinmeier’s who shares none of his complacency toward Putin, took over the lead role in articulating Germany’s response to the Crimea crisis.
Weakness isn’t only a military phenomenon. If too many Western leaders have been soft on Putin, it is not because they fear his tanks but because they lust after his billions. They have been hoping he would not reveal himself as an ogre until after a buck could be made. They’ve managed to overlook a lot of loutish behaviour. In 2008 Putin invaded Georgia; in 2009 his sidekick Dmitry Medvedev was at the G8 summit in Italy as if nothing had happened.
It would be handy if Western leaders could show, not some new burst of military brawn, but some elementary self-restraint. In choosing Europe over Russia, the people of Ukraine were willing to pass up a quick windfall in return for the hope of something worthier down the road. They could use some company. David Cameron needs to stem the flood of dirty Moscow money into London. G7 leaders need to stop kidding themselves that their company will transform Putin into a nice guy. Kick Russia out of the G8, not only for this year but until it transforms for good.
This crisis has handed Stephen Harper homework of his own, if he chooses to accept it. Even with luck, the democratization of a country that has long been burdened with authoritarianism is a slow business. In Poland more than a decade elapsed between the Solidarity strikes and the arrival of a strong multiparty democracy, and most countries are not as lucky as Poland. While they wait for a lucky break, lonely democrats in Europe, North Africa and around the world can always use help and company.
Harper used to want to send them some. His 2008 Throne Speech called for the creation of “a new, non-partisan democracy promotion agency . . . to support the peaceful transition to democracy in repressive countries and help emerging democracies build strong institutions.” That promise was abandoned, largely because a few reporters insisted on covering the mess Harper government appointees were making at an agency that already existed, Rights and Democracy. The Harper government created the office of an “ambassador for religious freedom” instead. But that office, whatever its utility in other circumstances, has been exquisitely useless in Ukraine. Some of Harper’s campaign promises have been worth forgetting. This wasn’t one of them. He is fond of reminding people that the fight for democracy dominated much of the 20th century. It’s not done yet. It’s time to send Canadians back into the battle full-time.