Shortly before the Sochi Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin played in an exhibition hockey game there. In retrospect, he was clearly warming up for his takeover of Crimea. Putin doesn’t strike me as a chess player, in geopolitical terms. He prefers hockey, without a referee, so elbowing, tripping and cross-checking are all permitted. Never go to a hockey game with Putin and expect to play by the rules of touch football. The struggle over Ukraine is a hockey game, with no referee. If we’re going to play, we, the Europeans and the pro-Western Ukrainians need to be serious. If we’re not, we need to tell the Ukrainians now: Cut the best deal with Putin that you can.
Are we serious? It depends on the meaning of the word “serious.” It starts with recognizing what a huge lift it will be to help those Ukrainians who want to break free of Russia’s orbit. Are we and our allies ready — through the International Monetary Fund — to finance Ukraine’s massive rebuilding and fuel needs, roughly $14 billion for starters, knowing that this money is going to a Ukrainian government that, before the overthrow of the previous president, ranked 144 out of 177 on the Transparency International list of most corrupt countries in the world, equal with Nigeria?
Moreover, we can’t help Ukraine unless we and the European Union have a serious renewable energy and economic sanctions strategy — which requires us to sacrifice — to undermine Putin and Putinism, because Ukraine will never have self-determination as long as Putin and Putinism thrive. Putin’s foreign policy and domestic policy are inextricably linked: His domestic policy of looting Russia and keeping himself permanently in power with oil and gas revenue, despite a weakening economy, seems to require adventures like Ukraine that gin up nationalism and anti-Westernism to distract the Russian public. And are we ready to play dirty, too? Putin is busy using pro-Russian Ukrainian proxies to take over government buildings in eastern Ukraine — to lay the predicate either for a Russian invasion there or de facto control there by Russia’s allies.
Finally, being serious about Russia means being serious about learning from our big mistake after the Berlin Wall fell. And that was thinking that we could expand NATO — when Russia was at its weakest and most democratic — and Russians wouldn’t care. It was thinking we could treat a democratic Russia like an enemy, as if the Cold War were still on, and expect Russia to cooperate with us as if the Cold War were over — and not produce an anti-Western backlash like Putinism.
As historian Walter Russell Mead put it in a blog post: “The Big Blini that the West has never faced up to (is): What is our Russia policy? Where does the West see Russia fitting into the international system? Ever since the decisions to expand NATO and the EU were taken in the Clinton administration, Western policy towards Russia … had two grand projects for the post-Soviet space: NATO and the EU would expand into the Warsaw Pact areas and into the former Soviet Union, but Russia itself was barred from both. … As many people pointed out in the 1990s, this strategy was asking for trouble.”
One of those pointing that out was George Kennan, the architect of containment and opponent of NATO expansion. I interviewed him about it in this column on May 2, 1998, right after the Senate ratified NATO expansion. Kennan was 94. He had been a U.S. ambassador in Moscow. He knew we were not being serious.
“I think it is the beginning of a new Cold War,” Kennan said to me of NATO expansion. “I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves. We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. (NATO expansion) was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs.”
“What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was,” added Kennan. “I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe. Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course, there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then (the NATO expanders) will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.”
We need a strategy to help Ukraine and to undermine Putinism today — and to reintegrate Russia tomorrow. It’s a big, big lift. So let’s be honest with ourselves and with the Ukrainians. If Putin’s playing hockey and we’re not, Ukrainians need to know that now.Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist.