Nicolas Tenzer, Paris
Once again, Western leaders have fallen for Putin’s trick: using the fog of war as a smokescreen to deceive us and reveal our weakness and inconsistency.
The December 7, 2021, video chat between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin was the latest act in the grating charade that has for too long characterized the relationship between Western powers and the Kremlin leader. Each time the drama plays out in the same predictable way. It would be burlesque but for the destroyed souls in the background. Each time, the Western side makes characteristic gesticulations and threats. In the end, every time, they do nothing. For more than 21 years.
The last meeting was no exception, except the West’s display was stronger and better coordinated, and the climbdown thus all the more impressive. As Olga Lautman of the Kremlin File aptly put it:
From the comfort of his vacation home in Sochi, Putin managed to put himself and his regime on an equal footing with the United States, while blithely issuing red lines. Russia’s president manufactured a crisis and in return was granted a phone call which placed him squarely at the center of the world’s attention. This may work this time, as it has worked in the past, but it would be foolhardy for the West to allow this to continue.
Even more depressing, Putin may win concessions from this dismal performance. At least, that’s what we’ve been reading since this meeting. We don’t know whether leaks to this effect are credible, nor do we know whether to believe the halfhearted denials of these leaks. Certainly, no one sounds as if they have in mind a firm line that Putin may not cross.
Western leaders do not seem to understand the way the Russian regime operates. For the record, here is how it operates:
- Putin launches a massive provocation (in this case, massing troops on the Ukrainian border).
- The West expresses “grave concern,” frets about the risk of war, and manages to assemble itself into something like a united front to condemn this.
- Putin gets what he wants: to get everyone talking about his so-called grievances.
- Without necessarily accepting all of these grievances as legitimate, some in the West begin saying that Putin’s concerns should perhaps be taken into consideration.
- Putin seems to back down (in fact, he’s already victorious, so it’s not a retreat).
- Relieved, Westerners offer him previously unimaginable concessions, even though no one actually admits this. So, for example, Nord Stream 2 is allowed to go ahead sincePutin has not completely overrun Ukraine. It’s made clear, unofficially, that there will be no more talk of Ukrainian membership in NATO. Some say that Kyiv is being too demandin Governments pitifully urge Ukraine to accept further concessions.
- Once again, the Kremlin cements its gains without making any concessions.
- Even before that, Putin relentlessly launches fresh provocations, for example, repeating the accusation that Ukraine is committing “genocide,” which is rich coming from a war criminal.
In short, Putin uses the fog of war as a smokescreen to deceive his enemy and reveal its weakness and inconsistency.
Of course, no one can know whether Putin will undertake a major new offensive in Ukraine, although I believe, as do others, that it is unlikely, at least for the moment. I think it even less likely following the December 7 video conference, because Putin has achieved—or will achieve, once a “decent interval” elapses—new gains. It doesn’t matter where all this leads in the end. The key is the way these mistakes have multiplied over the past few years. These failures speak volumes about the mental universe that Western leaders inhabit.
In their sense of time, Western leaders resemble patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Their memory of the distant past is robust enough, but their memory of the recent past is full of gaps. This leads, as I have argued before, to the disappearance of the present. They cannot learn from recent events, and the lessons they draw from the distant past are so general as to be suitable only for decorating commemorative speeches. Sententious about the past, they accept no responsibility for tragedies in the present. It’s easy enough to learn from the past if the era in question so remote that one is not obliged to do anything about it. Considering the failings of one’s immediate predecessors, however, might suggest one’s own.
There is a real deficit in Western governments of the ability to analyze and understand propaganda. Lacking the requisite intellectual weapons and failing to realize the importance of these tools, they permit the Russian regime operate on conquered ground.
Yet if only they allowed themselves to recall the recent past, they would find many lessons to be learned. Consider: How quickly attention faded after Russia’s war crimes during the second Chechen war in 1999-2000. The absence of notable reaction to Russia’s de facto annexation of 20 percent of Georgia’s territory in 2008. The condemnations and sanctions—necessary but very insufficient—after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its occupation of the Donbass. The near-complete absence of a response to the Kremlin’s war crimes in Syria from 2015 to this day. The failure firmly to link Lukashenko’s bloody repression of Belarus to Putin’s support for his regime.
Not to mention Russia’s internal repression—yes, the West generally condemns the targeted assassinations of dissidents, journalists, and whistleblowers, but no one prevents the regime from continuing with business as usual. Most Western leaders separate, in their words if not in their minds, Russia’s internal and external aggression. But they are inseparable.
Russia continues to interfere with established democracies in myriad ways, but the West remains passive in the face of Russia’s influence operations and intimidation, even as Putin comes to the aid of dictatorships and destabilizes the Balkans, Africa, Latin America, and Myanmar.
For nearly 22 years, Putin has won the war. Indeed, not once has he lost or retreated. He has conquered or subdued territories. No one has made him renounce his conquests, nor seriously sought to do so. He has set the agenda. Democracies have merely reacted, and this to no measurable effect. On balance, the past 22 years have been entirely to Putin’s gain. Observing this could only embolden China in its own ambitions.
Some Western leaders continue, belatedly, to refer to the Kremlin as a “partner,” or merely a “rival,” or an interlocutor with whom one can at least discuss certain things like reasonable people—as if these issues could be disentangled. Some increase their dependence on gas and thus the Russian regime; some continue to welcome Russian oligarchs and their capital; some fantasize out loud of integrating Russia into a European “architecture of trust and security;” some dream of a “stable, predictable relationship” with Moscow. Others discuss the invasion of Ukraine as if there were two aggressors, rather than an aggressor and a victim.
Putin’s new threats against Kyiv can only be properly assessed in light of the past 22 years. The massing of troops on Ukraine’s border is a tacit ultimatum aimed, among other things, at prohibiting Ukraine’s accession to NATO and ensuring the withdrawal of all NATO forces in Russia’s vicinity. Putin’s grotesque claim that Russophone Ukrainians face “genocide” must be seen in this light too. He made similar claims about Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014; needless to say, this rhetoric is reminiscent of Hitler’s propaganda about the plight of ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, which prefaced the invasion of Czechoslovakia. As with other absurd proclamations, it is not their substance that matters but the fact that they are uttered at all, reflecting an extravagant will to turn the meaning of words, and then reality, upside down.
Putin’s goal is transparent: to extract new concessions on Ukraine in “exchange” for the withdrawal of Russian troops and, as the Russian Foreign Ministry says explicitly, to significantly dismantle NATO in Europe. In the long run, he seeks to normalize what he believes is Moscow’s right to its “sphere of influence.”
After first floundering disastrously in its communications, the White House acknowledged belatedly that it would not exclude Ukraine from discussions about its own future or enjoin it to accept concessions to Moscow. But the West’s resolve, not just to contain the Russian regime but to make it give way, is in doubt. As the former British ambassador to Belarus wrote in in Foreign Policy, appeasement should be out of the question; this situation calls for deterrence. But even deterrence is no longer enough. We should not accept a frozen conflict in Ukraine; we must address the root of the problem, to wit, the occupation of two regions of Donbass and the annexation of Crimea.
To do this, we must escape from the smoke and mirrors spread through the fog of war.
THE LABYRINTH OF MIRRORS
Deterrence, conventional and nuclear, has two well-known elements, seemingly in tension. It requires persuading an enemy that the response to any attack will be both certain and unbearable and conveying calculated ambiguity about the nature of this response. In light of the past 22 years, Western deterrence has lost its credibility, at least as it pertains to non-NATO European countries.
The Kremlin uses the rhetoric of deterrence to great effect. It shows off, with fanfare, the “terrible” new weapons it has or could have in the near future. In fact, it has modernized its army quite significantly over the past decade, proudly boasting that it has used Syria as a testing ground. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has repeatedly tried to scare the West with the prospect of a cataclysmic war, even a nuclear war, should the West respond to his bullying. This message is integral to his propaganda: “If you defend yourselves, you will be responsible for the Third World War.” He said this again recently. This discourse parallels his narrative about the so-called threat from NATO, which is in fact a purely defensive alliance that would be indifferent to Russia were it not for Russia’s aggression.
It’s worth asking how the West sees itself through these distorting mirrors and how it should respond. Putin only started claiming that NATO threatened Russia about a decade ago; he did not say so before. Surprisingly, some in the West, including people well outside the circles that propagate the Kremlin’s narratives, agree with him, even though it is manifestly absurd to imagine NATO would attack Russia. Naivete, perhaps, or opportunism inspired by cowardice, prompts them to argue that Russia’s perception is reality, not a rhetorical slight-of-hand. They swallow the argument without considering the purpose it is meant to serve; it fails occur to them that Moscow promotes this line to weaken the West’s own security. Certainly, there is a real deficit in Western governments of the ability to analyze and understand propaganda. Lacking the requisite intellectual weapons and failing to realize the importance of these tools, they permit the Russian regime operate on conquered ground.
Thus the Kremlin seeks to convey the impression that it poses a threat beyond the wars it has already waged. It would be irresponsible to minimize the risk of a wider war, given the nihilism of the Russian president and the paranoia to which he is often given over, largely for domestic political reasons. But it is also important to understand that this is a calculated narrative. Putin has observed the West’s constant retreat and pusillanimity. Joe Biden’s declaration of an end to “forever wars,” and his focus on the People’s Republic of China to the detriment of the immediate threats to Europe and beyond, signal to Putin that this is a propitious moment to advance his goals. By waging war and displaying his appetite for more and new wars even as the West resolves to abstain or leave them to others, he has pushed liberal democracies into a corner. And why would he deprive himself? His strategy of opportunism, conducted as free countries retreat, has proved to be a winning one.
There must be no question of adopting Moscow’s narratives. What’s more, we must assert our own, more coherent narratives. In one of his rare unfortunate statements, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, addressing NATO ministers in Riga on November 30, distinguished between NATO and non-NATO states, noting that NATO was not obliged to defend Ukraine under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. This statement is unassailable, legally—it is true there is no NATO “obligation” to defend Ukraine—but misguided. The reality is that the security of NATO’s member countries doesn’t end at their borders; a threat to an ally of NATO is a threat to NATO. Article 5 did not prevent NATO from intervening in the former Yugoslavia against the Milošević regime.
Indeed, putting Ukraine under NATO’s protection is not only possible, it is probably the only way to protect it. Rather than trying to mollify Putin by assuring him Ukraine won’t join NATO, we should do the opposite and use NATO to protect Ukraine. (Georgia, for now, is a different kind of problem.)
Extending NATO’s protection must go hand in hand with providing key operational support. Kyiv, alone, doesn’t have the capacity to counter Russian forces, even with the delivery of new—and necessary—weapons from the allies. Ukraine needs air cover, electronic surveillance, and the ability to respond to cyberattacks. American capabilities are the most critical, since the United States has disproportionate clout among NATO members. The European Union claims that it seeks to assert its own power, particularly in the defense arena. Fully supporting these operations would be decisive proof of its seriousness. The EU, after all, would be even more directly threatened by a massive new attack on Ukraine than the United States, just as it is more threatened by every other act of aggression in Russia’s ongoing war against Europe. Let’s not forget that if the US retreats again after its withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Middle East, it would not just be a blow to America but, mainly, to Europe.
“OF COURSE WE WON'T DO ANYTHING!”
French diplomacy scholars will recall the words of Claude Cheysson, minister of foreign affairs in 1981 when a state of siege was declared in Poland: “Of course we won’t do anything!” These words have characterized Western policy, particularly over the past two decades. As others have noted, the maxim has been widely applied, especially in the face of massive crimes against humanity in Syria.
The sentence betrays an underlying theory. In the pseudo-realism of a certain species of geopolitical thought, small nations are doomed to misfortune and don’t merit the mobilization of the big ones. At the time, Cheysson defended this thesis by saying it was an “internal Polish affair,” since the Soviet Union had not intervened as in 1968. There was widespread fear that it would, however, if the situation degenerated. From this, the idea emerged that somehow, there were secondary people in the world’s hierarchy; it is in part the prevalence of this notion that explains why Putin’s claim that Ukraine and Russia form “a single people” elicited so little reaction. As I have argued elsewhere, for a significant segment of the Western political class, Ukraine and Belarus are just little Russias. What’s the problem, really, if they and their people are assimilated into their Big Brother to the east?
This is why many Western leaders go to Russia, not Ukraine, to discuss Ukraine’s future, or at least they go to Russia before going to Ukraine, or talk to the Russian president before talking to the Ukrainian president. They accord preeminence to Moscow because it is more powerful, because it is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, because it is a nuclear power.
Worse, they are constantly tempted by the notion that countries like Ukraine, or Belarus, or Syria, or Moldova, are a source of problems, and it would be best to have these problems resolved, even if this means resolving them at these countries’ expense. One wouldn’t wish to risk trouble with the big states—Russia and the People’s Republic of China. This sentiment has long animated and still animates any number of Western leaders toward Taiwan, and even more toward Hong Kong. Such countries and peoples are too small to be worth the risk. Statecraft is about big states.
Let us not pass moral judgment on these assertions and beliefs, save to point out that they are contrary to international commitments made by democracies and the founding principles of Europe. These ideas are profoundly stupid about the security of large states—or states who believe themselves to be large. How long would peace last in Europe if Ukraine fell? Can we seriously imagine that Georgia’s collapse into Moscow’s “sphere of influence” contributes to our security? What would it mean to leave Moldova on the margins of the European Union, dismissing the conflict in Transnistria as hopelessly frozen? If the United States intends to resist Chinese threats, can it do so without Europe—a Europe that is now in great danger of being weakened and denuded of independence in political and military action, if not dismantled and destroyed by Moscow’s attacks?
Coming to the aid of Ukraine and Belarus means, first, supporting European peoples who have made the choice to be European. In Ukraine, they have made this choice explicitly; in Belarus, they have made this choice implicitly—but clearly—through their struggle against a criminal and barbaric regime. These people are not secondary but essential to the strength of the European continent. Claiming to love Europe is an empty slogan and an insincere proclamation absent willingness to defend its most vulnerable people.
The Russian people themselves, no doubt, will one day reproach us for rendering them a secondary people. Helping the Russian people to free themselves, which should be our first concern, means defending the peoples oppressed by Moscow. Russian resistance to Putin passes through Ukraine, as Russian dissidents are growingly coming to understand. Sacrificing Ukraine on the altar of our relationship with Moscow would not only bolster Moscow’s capacity for external aggression but allow it further to oppress its own people. It is about time we understood the intimate connection between the two.
Nicolas Tenzer is a senior French civil servant and the founding president of the Paris-based independent think tank, Centre d’étude et de réflexion pour l’Action politique (Center for Study and Research for Political Decision). He teaches at Sciences-Po Paris. We’re grateful to him for giving us permission to publish this article. Read more by Nicolas Tenzer at Tenzer Strategics.