Staunton, September 15 – Many in the West view what Vladimir Putin has done in Ukraine as some kind of “anomaly” that he can correct and then cooperation between Moscow and the West can be restored to what it was, but Putin’s actions are making that position ever harder to sustain, according to Marcin Zaborowski.
In an article in Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza, the distinguished head of Poland’s Institute for International Relations says that this Western deference to Moscow has been a feature of most of the last two decades despite various actions by Russia that should have called it into question.
When NATO took the decision to expand the alliance eastward, Zaborowski notes, it “at one and the same time signed an act of cooperation with Russia which de facto created two categories of members”: those where NATO forces already were and those where they would not be put “in order not to anger Moscow.”
In the 17 years since that time, the Western alliance has tried various means “to show Russia that it very much wants to have friendly relations,” but the Kremlin has not been mollified and has only demanded “a further softening of NATO’s position,” something some in the alliance have supported.
However, the Polish expert says, “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has led to a change in the situation.” The alliance could not ignore what Putin has done, but some in the West nonetheless continue to believe that “the actions of Russia are an anomaly” and that if Putin backs off, everything can go back to where it was.
The NATO summit at Newport clearly showed that “this position has undergone a change” and thus “we can speak now about a transformation of the very approach to Russia” more generally.
“The largest countries of the West recognized,” the Polish expert says, “that Moscow has become their opponent and that the alliance must oppose it.” That represents a turning point, even if there were few concrete steps to follow it up. Many in Eastern Europe were unhappy that the alliance did not announce new bases, and the Ukrainians were clearly disappointed.
Given that, one might ask, Zaborowski says, “what difference it makes that NATO recognizes the Kremlin as a threat if it doesn’t take serious military actions.” The difference, he argues, is that there has been a mental shift and “for a patient to begin to cure himself, in the first instance, he must acknowledge to himself that he is ill.”
“This still doesn’t mean that NATO is ready to move toward a cure,” he continues, “but it is beginning to recognize threats and demonstrated in Newport a true understanding of its own weaknesses. But the patient is still vacillating as to whether he needs a cure … and [some hope] that the illness will pass on its own.”
At Newport, NATO announced some steps but they remain only plans, “and even if they are realized, the balance of forces in the region will not be changed in a principled way.” That disappointed many of the East Europeans, “but if we received little, then Ukraine besides words of support, did not receive anything.”
Ukraine left Newport on its own. NATO provided only “symbolic” assistance, and as a result, the Polish commentator says, “Kiev remains in a gray zone.” In part, this is the fault of the West which hasn’t moved forward to help it, but in part it is the fault of Ukrainian elites who until recently weren’t fully committed to joining the West.
After two decades of trying to make friends with Russia, “the West has begun to understand that [Moscow’s] goal is not friendship but the restoration of its former strength and opposition to the West.” And at Newport, “many states for the first time since the end of the Cold War looked at Moscow with Polish and Baltic eyes.”
That, however, is not enough, Zaborowski says. NATO “must begin to think not only how to react by the faits accomplis created by Putin but also begin to create such facts on its own.” And it must recognize that “the absence of support for Kiev may even incline the Russian president to further actions in Ukraine.”
In its absence, “the threat from Russia is moving ever closer to our own borders,” something that few in the West are yet prepared to recognize.