A word of advice to Western leaders: Talk to Putin but don’t let him gaslight you

Opinion piece (Euronews)
17 March 2020

Six years after Russia illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine and fell under Western sanctions, some Western leaders are getting restless. Men like Emmanuel Macron see the last few years of tension as an anomaly, and would like to establish mutually beneficial relations with Vladimir Putin. They feel sure that they can do better than their predecessors. But if they are not careful, they will end up like all those before them, retreating from Moscow disappointed and disillusioned.

Putin is a master of gaslighting. He has persuaded many of his Western colleagues that bad relations are the fault of the West; NATO and the EU, for instance, expanded towards Russia’s borders, the West interfered in Russia’s neighbourhood, and did not respect Russia’s views on Libya or Syria. Putin, on the other hand, ignores the tensions Russia has caused; murdering its opponents in London, Berlin and elsewhere, invading Georgia and Ukraine, and repeatedly violating international arms control treaties.

In his first decade in power, Putin used rising oil revenues to rebuild Russia’s military power. Since then, the economy has weakened, restricting his ability to strengthen Russia further. So, Putin has concentrated on weakening his adversaries, exploiting tensions between and within Western states. If Western leaders, including Macron, are to avoid helping him, they should follow six principles.

First, know the facts and challenge Putin and others when they distort them. In a recent interview on Ukraine, Putin repeated his longstanding claim that Ukrainians and Russians are one people with the same language, history and culture. Western leaders should contradict this dubious historical narrative, stressing that modern Ukraine is a sovereign state with an increasingly strong national identity. They should also state firmly that Ukraine is not (as Putin claims) involved in civil conflict, but is the victim of Russia’s unavowed military intervention.

Second, be ready to respond to Russia’s behaviour when it violates international norms; from the annexation of Crimea to the bombing of hospitals in Syria. Despite Macron’s doubts, sanctions are a useful tool, otherwise Putin would not work so hard to undermine them. It is tempting to hold back criticism in the belief that the West is just as bad as Russia. Donald Trump, after an interviewer told him in 2017 “Putin’s a killer,” responded, “We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?” Such thinking plays into Putin’s hands.

Third, never lose sight of Western interests. Putin skilfully gets Western leaders to see his interests as more legitimate than their own. His interlocutors must remind themselves that a democratic, prosperous and well-governed Ukraine is a better neighbour than an impoverished and corrupt client state of Russia. They should not accept that Russia’s view on the future direction of Ukraine should carry more weight than that of Ukraine’s Western neighbours or even of the Ukrainian people.


Fourth, remain united. Putin has done a better job of dividing the West than Soviet leaders could, thanks in large part to mistakes by his Western counterparts. He has seduced some Western leaders - like Trump or Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán - with his strongman image and promotion of “traditional values.” With others, such as Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, he has played on their distrust of their other allies. Western leaders should focus on the fact that they still have many common interests and work harder on overcoming their differences.

Fifth, do not isolate Russia completely. There are plenty of reasons to distrust Putin, to be appalled by things that his regime has done or to reject his world view. Responding by not talking to the Russian authorities is a mistake, however. Talking does not mean agreeing, or making concessions; but it is a chance to ensure that the sides understand each other and know where their red lines are. There is much more risk of unintended escalation when direct contacts are frozen. Russia and the West also need to talk about arms control, non-proliferation issues and regional conflicts – even if they do not reach any rapid agreement.

Sixth, seek out less sensitive areas of potential co-operation. Climate change and the shift to a low carbon economy are issues that will affect both Russia and its largest gas customer, Europe, albeit in very different ways. Russia and the West are both confronted with the risk that the coronavirus pandemic worsens, in which case their scientists (and Chinese experts) should work together. The West should challenge hostile stereotypes propagated in Russian state media by working with Russia wherever that is possible.

Western leaders should not forget history, ancient or recent, or ignore the reality of Putin’s Russia, but nor should they be its prisoners. The disappointed hopes of their predecessors may be buried all round the Kremlin; but as long as Putin’s guests come with realistic expectations, their visits need not end in tears.

Ian Bond is Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform.