Russian authorities recently threatened to aim nuclear missiles at Danish warships if Denmark joins NATO’s missile-defense system. This was obviously an outrageous threat against a country that has no intention of attacking Russia. But it also reflects a more fundamental factor in the Kremlin’s foreign policy: desperation to maintain Russia’s strategic influence at a time of unprecedented challenges to its authority.
Of course, Russia’s leaders know very well that NATO’s missile defense is not directed at their country. When I served as NATO secretary general from 2009 to 2014, we repeatedly emphasized that the purpose was to defend alliance members from threats originating outside the Euro-Atlantic area. Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of physics and engineering — two subjects at which Russians excel — can see that the system is designed to do precisely that.
Russia’s nuclear threats, against Denmark and others, are the hallmark of a weak country in economic, demographic and political decline. NATO has not aggressively victimized Russia, as Kremlin propaganda claims. The current conflict between Russia and the West — centered on the crisis in Ukraine — is, at its core, a clash of values.
Recall how the Ukrainian conflict began: Tens of thousands of Ukrainians from all parts of society demanded, in overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations, an association agreement with the European Union. No one was calling for a pogrom against Ukraine’s Russian-speakers, despite the Kremlin’s claims to the contrary. And NATO membership was not part of the deal.
Yet Russia reacted swiftly and harshly. Long before violence engulfed the protests, Russian officials began accusing the demonstrators of being neo-Nazis, radicals, and provocateurs. As soon as Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin began engineering the annexation of Crimea.
This was not only a gross violation of international law; it also directly contravened Russia’s oft-stated insistence that no country has the right to ensure its security at the expense of another. The Ukrainian demonstrators marched against their government, not Russia’s. Indeed, the notion that Ukraine could pose a military threat to Russia is nothing short of absurd. Even if Ukraine were a NATO member, a war of aggression against Russia would be an absurd scenario, as it would not serve any of the allies’ interests.
For Russia, the threat posed by the Ukrainian protesters was existential. In demanding change, freedom, and democracy — right on Russia’s doorstep, no less — the protesters challenged Putin’s model of “sovereign democracy,” in which the president eliminates all opposition, restricts media freedom, and then tells citizens that they can choose their leaders. The Kremlin feared that if the Ukrainians got what they wanted, Russians might be inspired to follow their example.
That is why Russia’s leaders have been so keen to label Ukraine’s leaders as Russophobes and fascists. It is why they have portrayed the Baltic States for years as dysfunctional oppressors of their Russian citizens. And it is why they are now portraying the EU as decadent, immoral, and corrupt. The Kremlin is trying desperately to convince Russians that liberal democracy is bad, and that life under Putin is good. That requires not only spreading damaging lies at home, but also sowing violence and instability among its neighbors.
In the face of a massive Russian propaganda assault, the West must continue to stand up for Ukraine, as well as for Georgia and NATO members like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Despite whatever pain we incur, we must maintain — and, if necessary, deepen — sanctions against Russia and reinforce NATO’s front line. And we must face up to the reality that, at long last, we may have to pay for our defense.
The West’s greatest strength is democracy; it is what has enabled us to secure peace for two generations and bring an end to communist rule in Europe almost without a shot being fired. Though liberal democracy is far from perfect, it remains the best defense against extremism and intolerance — and the most powerful facilitator of human progress.
If the West allows Russia to attack its neighbors simply because they might inspire Russians to seek reform, it will send the message that democratic values are not worth defending. It will undermine the West’s role as a model of prosperity and freedom that societies worldwide hope to emulate. And it will eliminate not only the West’s remaining moral authority, but also the sense of purpose that animates NATO.
Such an approach would expose the West to attacks by Putin and similar aggressors. And it would be a slap in the face to all of the courageous men and women worldwide who risk their lives every day in the pursuit of freedom and democracy.
No one should be fooled by the Kremlin’s spin doctors. The conflict in Ukraine is not about Ukraine. Nor is it about Russia, or even about NATO. It is about democracy. The West must respond accordingly.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former secretary general of NATO and prime minister of Denmark, is chairman of Rasmussen Global. © Project Syndicate, 2015