(Written by Debra Cagan & Ambassador Dr. Réka Szemerkényi for USMilitary.com) Here we go again. Every time a global power behaves egregiously the pundits, scribes, self-anointed intellectuals and the legions of former government officials blame the United States for causing such outrageous behavior. Of course, these countries are never guilty of their own sins, they were somehow pushed into it by outside forces. This inexplicable need to forgive the transgressions of the truly bad, North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, all because the United States “made them do it”, must rank as one of the best examples of factual denial in existence. This same warped logic has led the pundits to decry that the United States has forced China into a new cold war. It is as if China’s wretched track record from human rights atrocities to the unscrupulous “payday” lending practices of the belt and road initiative are simply by-products of a U.S. administration which just cannot let China be China.
But even these excuses pale in comparison to the litany of justifications for why the United States must acquiesce to Putin’s unfettered revanchism. According to the legions of Russian “explainers” promulgating these theories, if only the United States and NATO would have ceded, what they expansively refer to as Russia’s back yard to Moscow’s dominion, and had foregone that “foolish NATO enlargement,” Russia would not have been forced to invade its neighbors. If only the United States would have stayed in meaningless arms control agreements that were abrogated by Russian cheating, we would not be on the cusp of nuclear armageddon.
Those who have adopted this Russian espoused narrative likely have a huge fan club in Moscow, but for the rest of us their embrace of it is both reckless and dangerous. There is a disturbing theme here. It is a harkening back to what is erroneously perceived as the glory days of U.S.-Russian relations, despite little evidence that those days were ever all that glorious. There is little recognition that those resets and a bevy of arms agreements have changed virtually nothing. Under the dedicated and close watch of those who wish for these better times, the Russians rolled tanks into Ukraine, aided and abetted Assad and the Iranians in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Syrians and Kurds, occupied even greater tracts of Georgia and consigned Moldova to what these same people have the temerity to call “a frozen conflict.”
NATO and EU enlargement, even stopping genocide in the Balkans, or standing by the ideals and people of the Maidan, are all seen as provocations and disrespect for what the Russians view as their justified sphere of interest. What the excuses set fails to recognize is that there is no moral equivalence between oppressive authoritarian systems and democracies, people make choices as a result of which there are always winners and losers. Russia set its own course because it never accepted that Western values combined with economic and military strength succeeded where the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact failed.
The situation in Belarus could not be clearer in making Putin’s point. According to the logic of Russia-explainers, the right reaction of the West now is – not to react. Sit idle and we’ll avoid Russian intervention. This is the best of both worlds to Moscow: Convince the West that if pressured Russia will intervene militarily, knowing thatwill be enough to scare the West away. Russia does not have to actually do that much to be successful; it just has to make the West believe that it will.
The reality is that Moscow’s plan must have been ready for a long time: if and when Lukashenka becomes too big a liability, careful engineering – elections or political maneuvers – will allow Putin to get him out of the way and bring in a “technocrat” leader, soft enough to calm Belarusian nerves but strong enough to serve Russian interests, only in a smarter way. The main precondition for implementing this likely scenario is that Belarusian demonstrators understand that they are alone. The West cannot or will not be giving them effective support.
An interesting strategic alternative to Russia explainers is to call this for what it is: Russia is Russia, its leadership has chosen a non-cooperative path and the Western values of sovereignty, respect for international agreements and democracy have not succeeded in impacting Putin’s strategic thinking. While it is unlikely that Western inaction will deter Putin’s Russia from intervening, Western silence will deal a serious blow to Western values. Perhaps the best alternative to the do-nothing crowd is to do what made the West, the West: holding high its values and proposing a democratic alternative to major societal and economic tensions.
The morally bankrupt and lethal system that was the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight because people in that part of the world wanted better than continued Soviet dominance and occupation and made their choice known. This is the reality Putin does not want to accept. Hence the continued effort to recreate this system of external influence over a strategically important region country by country. After Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine, now maybe Belarus – how many more countries have to fall under this same pressure until the West finally gets the point?
Debra Cagan is the Distinguished Energy Fellow at the Transatlantic Leadership Network. She is a former career State Department and Defense Department official, having served from the Reagan to the Trump administrations.
Ambassador Dr. Réka Szemerkényi is the past Executive Vice President of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and a former Ambassador from Hungary to the United States.