4 March 2022. It’s madness, wrote a friend and colleague from Kyiv on Thursday morning when the Russian army began its multi-fronted assault on Ukraine. He does have a point. But even if it is madness that spurs on the war on Ukraine and her people, that does not justify the failure to have taken this madness seriously before it could get to this point. Why would a cynically rational populist invade a neighbouring country when it so clearly harms his own country, his people, his reputation and international standing and, quite possibly, also his domestic popularity? As it turns out, staying in power is not the only thing Putin cares deeply about.
Putin’s foreign policy
The red thread of Putin’s foreign policy throughout his two decades in power is the attempt to overcome what he sees as the disastrous demise of the Soviet Union by rebuilding a Russian-led realm that covers much the same territories as the former Union of Socialist Republics. This oft-repeated goal entails that the countries of what is officially called the Near Abroad must be brought back on board the mothership Russia. Ukraine tops the list of the Near Abroad not least because the Ukrainian drive for independence was a key trigger for the downfall of the Soviet Union. In the tradition of considering Ukraine as ‘Little Russia’, Putin drives the narrative that Ukrainians and Russians are in fact one people, their separation into different states but the result of historical accident.
Alas, if Ukraine had not already been lost to the neo-imperial Russian fever dream before, it was definitely lost as a consequence of Russian aggression following the Maidan Revolution that ousted the Moscow-backed Yanukovitch. The Russian annexation of Crimea and de facto occupation of the Donbas in 2014 have effectively united the majority of Ukrainians in their opposition and even enmity to Russia. And Ukraine is not alone in rejecting Putin’s embrace. The peoples of almost all former Soviet republics, from the Baltics to Moldova, from Georgia to Kyrgyzstan, have steadily drifted away from Russia and have set their compass towards Brussels, Berlin, Washington and Beijing instead of Moscow. Even Russian as a lingua franca has seen a steady decline.
Authoritarian populists must be taken seriously
Other than rebuilding the bombed cities and lives of Ukraine, what remains to be done once this war is over? The supporters of a liberal democratic order will need to build an awareness that declarations and claims by authoritarian populists must be taken seriously and that foreign policy has to prepare accordingly. If a leader such as Putin persistently threatens to attack or harm another country, then it no longer suffices to dismiss this as harmlessly playing to the nationalist crowd at home. The foreign policy toolkit in dealing with such leaders will once again have to go beyond the template of fostering economic cooperation with the aim of creating mutual dependencies and include the credible threat of using hard military power to dissuade them from wrongdoing. As unpleasant as it is to write this, preparing for the worst may be the best means to prevent the worst from actually happening.
Ole Frahm works on populist foreign policy, hybrid regimes and the new international relations of Eurasia. Together with Dirk Lehmkuhl he just published “Populist Neo-Imperialism: A New Take on Populist Foreign Policy”, which argues that populists from former imperial countries, including Russia, pursue a very specific and consistent foreign policy of seeking to reestablish dominance over their former dominions.
Image: Adobe Stock / Jonathan Stutz