Asked about Russia’s intervention in Ukraine at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum last month, President Vladimir V. Putin spoke bitterly of America and Europe. “They have pushed us back to the line beyond which we can’t retreat,” he said.
This was more than a political blame game. His answer revealed both a concerted anti-Western strategy, in which the West is seen as the enemy, and also a policy of brinkmanship. The implicit message was that if the West acted in a manner not to the Kremlin’s liking, that could prompt an ultimate response, maybe even a nuclear one.
In April, after speaking to people close to Mr. Putin, Graham Allison, director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, warned of a growing risk of nuclear war. But they offered a contrasting explanation.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia was on its knees,” they wrote. “But since Vladimir Putin took over in 1999, he has led a recovery of Russia’s sense of itself as a great power.”
These two strands of the Kremlin narrative — recovery on one hand; encirclement on the other — have been fashioned to appeal to the Russian people and used to justify more than 15 years of authoritarian rule. But both strands are suspect. In the early 1990s, Russians rose up against Soviet authoritarianism. The first — and last — popularly and fairly elected president, Boris N. Yeltsin, had a mandate to pursue the true national interest of catching up with the advanced, democratic West.
The situation in Ukraine now, after a popular uprising against a corrupt, authoritarian regime, resembles Russia then. However painful the transition to freedom might be, it would be weird to say that the people who are undertaking it are “on their knees.” Was America on its knees under King George III’s rule in the run-up to the war for independence?
Tragically for Russia, from the mid-’90s an oligarchic bureaucracy monopolized oil and gas exports and has used the profits to purchase luxuries and homes in the West. The general population, meanwhile, has remained under the custody of a K.G.B.-style state security and propaganda apparatus.
The ailing Mr. Yeltsin allowed this regression. But Mr. Putin rides on it. For a decade, the rising price of oil provided soaring growth and veiled the inherent deficiency of the regime. In reality, Russia’s government is simply incompatible with the reforms needed for sustainable economic development, which demands liberalization and competitiveness.
When the petrodollar windfall dried up, that reality reasserted itself. Today, the nation is truly on its knees — beneath a leader who cannot be changed, and as hostage to the capricious price of oil and a gluttonous military-security complex. The fratricidal war in Ukraine, the impudence of the Chechen strongman Ramzan A. Kadyrov, a renewed isolation from the West and the Kremlin’s dependence on China as financier of last resort are all jabs to national pride and security.
At the same forum where Mr. Putin spoke of the last line of defense, his friend and Russia’s former finance minister, Aleksei L. Kudrin, proposed an early presidential election to provide a mandate for much-needed economic reforms. This voice from the ruling elite is only an echo of mounting dissent within. Sooner or later, economic hardship will awaken the people, too.
This year alone, Russians have suffered a 3 percent loss in real disposable income (6.4 percent year on year). In the 12 months to April, exports — vital for providing foreign currency — fell 33.9 percent, and imports shrank 40.8 percent. The outlook is very poor.
Like their Soviet predecessors, the Kremlin’s present rulers see the example of the democratic West, above all the United States, as a threat. Instead of preaching a Communist-style supremacy, most realize that their regime will be uncompetitive in the long run. Yet the oligarchs cling to power as long as possible through intimidation and disinformation, seeking to undermine Western norms, from human rights to business transparency and international law.
America’s vice president, Joseph R. Biden Jr., rightly said that the conflict over Ukraine was “a test for the West.” If it fails that test, the West will stimulate further aggression, both in Ukraine and elsewhere. A slow, feeble reaction from both Kiev and the West to Russia’s seizure of Crimea encouraged intervention in eastern Ukraine.
In today’s Russian political culture, “if one shows some weakness,” wrote Julia Ioffe in The Washington Post in March, “then one is all weakness — and therefore prey.” Things may even come to nuclear blackmail, as has been hinted.
Yet the potential of American soft power and leadership, together with a strong response from European countries and Ukraine, is far from exhausted. Economic sanctions have bitten, magnifying the regime’s inefficiency.
The firmness of the West in protecting the sovereignty of Ukraine and restoring its territorial integrity is a prerequisite not only to rein in the Kremlin’s aggressive impulses, but also to engage Russia in a constructive dialogue on a broad agenda. This could extend to arms control and confidence-building measures to reduce the risk of war. Of course, any negotiations must start from the position that nuclear threats are unacceptable and counterproductive.
Regime change in Russia is inevitable, maybe imminent. But the West should not bet on that eventuality or make it a policy goal. The Russian people will rise up again, but the path to a sustainable democracy and stable economy will be challenging. The West should be ready to help then.
What the Western democracies must do now, for Russia and for themselves, is prove that they will defend their values and international law.
Andrei V. Kozyrev was the foreign minister of Russia from 1990 to 1996.