Not only Ukraine, the whole world is in danger from Russia

Putin’s ambitions pose a long-term threat that reaches far beyond Ukraine

Like the king he is inspired by, Vladimir Putin He is about to be anointed as the ruler of Russia for the next six years. The election he wins on March 17 will be a farce., But this should be a warning to the West. Far from collapsing, the Russian regime has demonstrated its resilience. And Putin’s ambitions pose a long-term threat that reaches far beyond Ukraine. It could create discord in Africa and the Middle East, paralyze the United Nations, and put nuclear weapons in space. The West needs a long-term strategy for a rogue Russia that goes far beyond helping Ukraine. Right now he doesn’t have it. They also have to show that their enemy is Putin, not 143 million Russians.

Many in the West hoped that Western sanctions and Putin’s mistakes in Ukraine, including the senseless sacrifice of large numbers of young Russians, would topple his regime. However, Survived, As our study of this week’s life in Vladivostok shows, their resistance has many bases. The Russian economy has been revamped. Oil is shipped south globally, bypassing export restrictions. Western brands from BMW to H&M have been replaced by Chinese and local brands. An attractive narrative of Russian nationalism and victimhood is promoted in textbooks and the media. Internal dissent has been stifled. Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most charismatic political rival, was murdered in the Gulag in February. So far, the Kremlin has had no difficulty controlling the brave crowds of mourners.

Over time, the regime will face new vulnerabilities. The cumulative effects of isolation from Western technologies will adversely affect productivity: think of Boeing planes breaking down or resorting to pirated software. Russia’s increasing dependence on China could become a weak point. Militarization of the economy will affect the standard of living. The population will decline by one-tenth in the next two decades. And as Putin, 71, ages, a succession battle will loom. It is always difficult to predict when a dictator will fall. However, a cautious working hypothesis is that Putin will remain in power for years.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union posed both a military and ideological threat to the free world. The West managed to control it and, after its collapse, welcomed its democratic and market reforms. Putin, who took power in 1999, rolled back Russian democracy at first slowly, but in the 2010s following mass protests by young urban Russians. He blames the West for challenges to his regime and tries to protect his regime by isolating Western influence and uniting the Russian people in the fight against the tyranny of the United States and NATO. Currently, Russia has only a medium-sized economy and no coherent ideology for exporting. However, it represents a global threat. The immediate threat is the defeat of Ukraine and subsequent attacks on neighboring countries such as Moldova and the Baltic; But Putin’s ambitions do not end here.

Let’s think about new or unconventional weapons. People say Russia is experimenting with placing nuclear weapons in space. Its drones and cyber warriors allow it to project forces beyond its borders. Their disinformation industry spreads lies and confusion. This evil combination has destabilized countries in the Sahel and supported dictators in Syria and Central Africa. It could also impact some of the many elections taking place around the world this year. Many in the Global South believe the false Russian narrative: that Putin is saving Ukraine from the Nazis, that NATO is the real aggressor, and that the West is trying to impose its power on Russia.

(Russia’s ability to disrupt global institutions like the UN Security Council, created after 1945, should not be underestimated. It has transformed itself into a nihilistic and unpredictable enemy of the liberal world order, bent on disrupting and sabotaging it. It is like North Korea or Iran armed with thousands of nuclear weapons.

What should the West do? The United States and Europe have chosen two strategies: defense and sanctions against Ukraine. Arming and funding Ukraine’s defenders is the most cost-effective way to thwart Russian aggression, but the West’s determination to continue doing so is deplorable.

For their part, the sanctions have been less effective than expected. They can be counterproductive and an excuse to avoid difficult decisions. More than 80% of the world, measured in population and 40% in GDP, does not enforce them, allowing Russia to trade freely and reducing the perceived legitimacy of the sanctions. If the West tried to use secondary sanctions to force the world into compliance, it would be counterproductive, causing some countries to leave the US-led financial system. In the long term, the most plausible path is more modest: maintain targeted sanctions against Kremlin-linked individuals and ensure that advanced technology, while still Western, is costly or impossible for Russia to obtain.

This means that an effective strategy against Russia will have to rely more heavily on the other two pillars. The first is military reinforcement to deter new Russian aggression. The weakness in Europe is clear. Annual defense spending is less than 2% of GDP, and if Donald Trump wins the White House again, the United States’ commitment to NATO could end. Europe needs to spend at least 3% of its GDP on defense and prepare for more isolationist Uncle Sam.

The West also needs to deploy one of its most powerful weapons: universal liberal values. It was these, along with Star Wars and the dollar, that helped overthrow the Soviet regime by exposing the inhumanity of its totalitarian system. Western diplomacy should seek to counter Russian disinformation throughout the Global South. It should address Russian citizens rather than treat them as outcasts. This means exposing human rights violations, supporting dissidents, and welcoming Russians who want to flee their country. It is meant to support the forces of modernization by encouraging the flow of genuine news and information into Russia. And that means making sure there are humanitarian exceptions to the restrictions, from first aid kits to educational materials. In the short term, it is highly unlikely that the Russian elite or its ordinary citizens will overthrow Putin’s regime. But, in the long run, Russia will stop being a rogue state only if its people want it to.

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved.

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