The current turmoil has Western leaders so focused on the war in Ukraine that they have lost sight of what is most important. It's not promoting a Ukrainian victory but integrating Russia.
The current turmoil goes back to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing, almost totally unrecognized, strategic blunder: the failure to integrate Russia into the Industrialized World. That was what was done with Germany and Japan after World War II. They are now active and productive members of the global economy. The concept of national dominance that spurred hundreds of years of wars in Europe is gone.
This strategic blunder had a military dimension, the expansion of NATO. The Soviet collapse had eliminated the main reason for the alliance, but a Western focus on military dominance undermined the alternative of stressing economic development in East Europe. The NATO expansion was short-sighted but does not pose any real threat to Russia. NATO is a purely defensive alliance and the very thought of it attacking Russia is fanciful. Nevertheless, we see now that the concept of national dominance is not dead at all. Putin is using medieval visions of Russian imperial dominance to support his plutocratic elite and is using a fictional threat from the West to bolster this effort.
Ending the appalling Russian activities in Ukraine has become the focus of Western efforts. Nuclear blackmail has intensified the focus on doing everything necessary to stop the current fighting, even comparing the current situation to World War I when nations stumbled into a war that was not in the real interests of any of the participants.
But Putin does indeed pose an existential threat. Russia is undermining the entire international system and supporting autocracy globally - Syria, Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela - and providing a template for China. For the first time in decades, there have been serious discussions of nuclear weapons use. Invisible Russian cyber operations further undermine stability. The deepening problem of global warming is being pushed aside as economic distress and hunger rise globally. Of course, the Western use of trillions of dollars of assets to support broad military dominance only intensifies these problems. Nations worldwide are becoming more skeptical of democracy, as vividly demonstrated by the hesitancy of the global community to condemn Russia actions. This skepticism is even domestic as broad sections of the Western public see their own lives upended. The war in Ukraine is only one aspect of the global system unravelling.
We need to do what we should have done thirty years ago: integrate Russia into the Industrialized World, build a prosperous and peaceful Europe that includes a dynamic and evolving Russia. That has to be emphasized as the primary focus of Western efforts. We do not need a total victory for Ukraine, we need a total victory for everyone. Integrating Russia would dramatically change the international picture.
The West is putting a huge focus on supporting Ukraine militarily and building defense, and this is certainly necessary in the short term. One unfortunate effect of this focus has been to demonize Russians, to see them as complicit in this disaster. In actuality, Russians are every bit as much victims as the Ukrainians. There is obviously a need to end active fighting as rapidly as possible, so a cease fire is a necessary first step. Maintaining NATO cohesion is critical and needs to include at least an association with Ukraine in a unified response to the Russia aggression. NATO needs to make clear that a cease fire cannot be the last step, that the fundamental objective is peace and prosperity for everyone in Europe, including Russia. And that peace in Europe will facilitate a new era of international development that works for everyone.
A cease fire would bring immediate and significant benefits to Ukraine, expedite broad Western efforts to rebuild the country and support grain shipments to the world. Envisioning a new and thriving economy would certainly be attractive for Ukrainians. The stumbling block is the obvious concern of Zelensky and many Ukrainians that a cease fire would be the last step, freezing Russian control of broad areas of Ukraine. To facilitate a cease fire, the West has to strongly emphasize that this would NOT be the last step, but fundamentally a shift from military confrontation to socio-economic and diplomatic one with the clear objective of promoting the emergence of a more progressive Russia.
A cease fire would also bring significant benefits to Russia, ending its incompetent and disastrous attempt to revive a medieval Russian imperialism. The stumbling block here is Putin's reluctance to accept any failure of achieving his goals (though he has already acknowledged Ukraine's sovereignty), as well as plutocratic elements pushing to intensify the war. The war has badly undermined Putin's position, though it is hard to assess just how much. Nevertheless, a cease fire could clearly be attractive to significant portions of the government.
The central struggle is a battle for the minds of the Russian people. We need to work to remove Putin who is personally responsible for tens of thousands of deaths, widespread destruction and extensive social fragmentation. But we need to avoid going from bad to worse by empowering even more radical elements. We need a broad outreach to Russian minds, but focusing at the street level does not seem the best option. Widespread unrest remains unlikely, particularly since many of the most strongly anti-Putin young people have fled the country. Broad demonstrations would immediately face brutal repression. It seems that the minds we should most focus on are those of mid-level economic and government officials, people who have some potential for influence on the government but are not directly involved in its plutocratic network. These people are well aware of the disastrous impact Putin is having on Russia and the need for change. Everyday Russians need to be encouraged to reach out to their local managers and officials and push them to promote change. The regime can do a good job of repressing demonstrations but cannot easily counter friction within the government. In the short term, shifts in Russian minds could also be a significant factor in pushing the regime to a cease fire.
Such a quest for Russian minds is a double challenge. Russian culture has long stressed a Russian primacy, which Putin has very effectively used to support his own warped view of Russian ascendency, while he has also very effectively squelched independent media operations within Russia. It is stress on several different topics that can force change in Russia:
- Broad Publicity on Putin's War. The international community is well aware of the wide destruction and war crimes perpetrated by Russian forces. The war is being waged not for the benefit of the people but the plutocrats. Information on the war and corruption needs to be continuously and systematically pushed to the Russian public.
- Russian War Casualties and Military Losses. These have been carefully kept from the Russian people and need to also be broadly disseminated. The Russian people have always been proud of their army; they need to be shown how much it has degraded.
- Ukrainian Development. This will stand in stark contrast to Russian economic decline and turmoil in occupied Ukrainian areas.
- Russian Opposition. Putin's control of the media is hardly absolute, particularly with Russian émigré groups supporting domestic opposition elements. Thousands of Russian families have been directly impacted while the mismanaged mobilization has already generated broad discontent.
- Potential areas of cooperation. This includes established programs in space, realignment of energy supplies, broad commercial ties, cooperation in technical and medial modernization, expansion of tourism and cultural programs and of course arms control.
Spreading information within Russia on these topics can do much to undermine Putin and his plutocracy. An essential element has to be working with media that reaches to the Russian people. Many of these outlets are based outside Russia, typically with major staff of Russian emigres. So the effort has to reach out to the Russian diaspora, encouraging them to reach out to families and associates within Russia. This obviously includes recent emigrees from Russia that are strongly anti-Putin and certainly interested in a return to a more progressive and welcoming Russia. But it also includes millions of ethnic Russians now citizens of other countries, including Ukraine and the Baltics. The outreach has to include the potential for these Russians to play a positive role in their countries of residence, facilitating collaboration with a new Russia. So rather than defaming ethnic Russians as supportive of Putin's repressive regime, the outreach has to acknowledge that they have also been victims and a new Russian government can reaffirm their historic contribution to European development.
Western economic organization, particularly those that had active operations in Russia before the war, can also be a significant help in outreach. They can talk directly with former Russian partners and stress their interest in resuming activities once the current crisis is over. Russians at the mid-level of government and the economy need to see real prospects of new economic ties.
Any vision of a peaceful and prosperous Europe has to look beyond military confrontation and minimize points of contention. It is imperative to stress that the Industrialized World cannot prosper in a vacuum; prosperity depends on a supportive international situation. This is obviously apparent when we look at refugee flows, the impact of global energy prices, the importance of global trade and supply chains, not to mention pandemics. Global warming has often been dismissed as exaggerated or distant, but the increasing impact of wildfires, water shortages, sea level rise, and more intense storms underlines the need for concerted action.
So we need to push for a cease fire and broad development in Ukraine, but as a transition to continuing pressure on Russia to provide a more progressive government. It is not pressure from the outside in that will change Russia, but pressure from the bottom up. The war in Ukraine is only one aspect of our quest to develop a peaceful and prosperous world, not a world dependent on Western military dominance but rather on broad socio-economic collaboration that benefits everyone.