On Twitter, @pelzm asked: “What is Putin’s ultimate objective in Ukraine, and is the West responding appropriately?” Doug Saunders, The Globe’s international affairs columnist and editor of Globe Debate, says “that’s the question of the year.” He explains:
Much of our analysis during the last eight-odd months has been devoted to the question of what Vladimir Putin’s “end game” looks like in Ukraine – what his motives are in launching a de facto invasion, and what outcome he is seeking – and therefore what the best response should be from the West.
One school of thought holds that Mr. Putin, by interfering in Crimea, in eastern Ukraine and possibly in Moldova and elsewhere, has launched a full-fledged invasion of the parts of Eastern and Central Europe that formerly belonged to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (and possibly some that are part of the Warsaw Pact). For example, David Meadows at Dalhousie University argued in Globe Debate that Mr. Putin is pursuing a neo-imperialist strategy intended to resurrect Russia’s former territorial might. Of course, Mr. Putin literally has claimed Crimea as Russian territory, in the wake of a secession referendum he appears to have orchestrated (whose results were not recognized by most of the rest of the world); the question is whether this was a prelude to a larger territorial seizure.
On the other end of the spectrum, Mr. Putin and those who endorse the Russian perspective on these events believe he has not launched an invasion at all and is simply protecting Russian minorities (and, in the case of Crimea, ethnic majorities) across the region and taking their side in civil wars and secession movements that have spontaneously erupted.
But the view among many Russia-watchers is that Mr. Putin is trying to sow chaos and ambiguity in the region, as he did before in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in order to prevent their functioning membership in the European political and economic community, and in order to bolster his strength and popularity at home in Russia.
As I wrote in an analysis earlier this year: “Rather than seeking to divide Ukraine and annex the more Russian part of its territory, in this scenario Mr. Putin is seeking to ensure that Ukraine’s loyalties will remain neutral, out of fear or out of persuasion, and the country’s perpetual divide between east and west will not tilt too far toward Europe.”
Thus, the question as to whether the West is responding appropriately is at least partly prefigured by your answer to the first question. Those who view Mr. Putin’s ambitions as neo-imperialist and based on larger-scale territorial expansion tend to feel that the West’s response has been woefully inadequate and that only hard military action, or the immediate and viable threat of it, will cause Russia to back down. This has been more or less the view of former ambassadors Derek Burney and Fen Hampson, who have repeatedly called for a more overt NATO role in eastern Europe (and Ukrainian membership in that organization).
The tough but targeted program of economic isolation through sanctions that has been applied by Western governments – at first half-heartedly and recently more robustly and successfully – has its critics. Mr. Putin’s supporters feel that they are simply part of a larger and unprovoked Western attack on Russia and “Eurasian” regional interests. And some Western observers worry that that over-aggressive economic penalties could further popularize this view within Russia – that is, they could make Mr. Putin even more popular by seemingly confirming his claim that all Russians are under attack by the West.
As the year has progressed and Mr. Putin has failed to end his interference in Ukraine, Western observers and governments have become tougher in their application of sanctions; a certain line was crossed this autumn when German chancellor Angela Merkel gave up her attempts to win over the Russian president and backed a hardline sanctions policy.
The challenge will be to calibrate economic sanctions so they force Mr. Putin to reverse his course without emboldening him further. In a July analysis titled “Putin’s war of ideas cuts to the heart of Europe,” I wrote (if you’ll forgive me quoting myself again) that we should avoid thinking of this as another Cold War, because, unlike in Soviet times, Mr. Putin is not acting from strength but “out of internal political and economic weakness of a profound degree.” As such, the West’s response needs to be calibrated:
“What needs to be sought is not an amplification of Mr. Putin’s myth of a divided continent, but an end to it. A tough economic response is required, along with a generous democratic response that would bring Ukraine into Europe – alongside a refusal to play along with Mr.Putin’s attempt to manufacture a civilizational showdown. Ukraine and Russia are both European countries, as much as any other; it is time to put aside our old illusions and help both countries get on the path to peace, prosperity and European values.”