Three myths about Russia

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Nearly two weeks later, Vladimir Putin’s extraordinarily provocative, acerbic and self-pitying speech justifying the annexation of Crimea still resonates. The speech exposed three myths about Mr. Putin’s rule and ambitions.

• Myth one: Russians are victims of history. In Mr. Putin’s eyes, the Russian people were “plundered” as victims of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian nation, he said, may be “the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”

He did not mention that the Russian Federation inherited the bulk of the USSR’s assets when it collapsed in 1991. Of the 15 new countries that emerged, Russia became the “continuation state.” It thus secured the powerful U.N. Security Council seat, eventually all the nuclear weapons and major military assets, nearly all of the embassy properties, the space program and significant gold reserves. The White House, where I worked on Soviet affairs at the time, supported a strong Russia as the best guarantor of future stability.

But Russia did not get the right to “protect” ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Belarus, Estonia and Latvia. This is the most troubling aspect of Mr. Putin’s policy — the irredentist claim to defend Russians throughout the territory of the former USSR. It threatens to upend the historic peace in Europe since the Cold War’s end.

• Myth two: Misguided U.S. policies forced Russia to react. Even some Americans have contended that NATO expansion and the Kosovo War contributed to Mr. Putin’s supposed humiliation and aggressive, anti-U.S. behavior.

The reality is that Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton went overboard to help Boris Yeltsin and then Mr. Putin to succeed. The United States delivered billions in support of Mr. Yeltsin’s reforms, inspired a substantial International Monetary Fund/​World Bank package and brought Russia into the G-8 in 1994. But Mr. Yeltsin’s government failed and he left Russia in a perilous state. After 9/​11, when Mr. Putin said he wanted greater cooperation with the West, George W. Bush helped to create the NATO-Russia Council. I served on that council and a cynical, suspicious Mr. Putin did little to meet us halfway.

We were right to expand NATO and the European Union as they were critical in sustaining permanent democracies in Eastern Europe. Without NATO’s security umbrella, Mr. Putin undoubtedly would be threatening Estonia and Latvia right now after digesting Crimea. Poor Russian leadership, not American policy, is the reason for Russia’s slide as a declining global power.

• Myth three: Mr. Putin’s on a roll, and we can’t stop him. President Barack Obama is playing an admittedly weak hand, and he made the right decision not to respond militarily. He is working with Europe to support Ukraine, sanction Mr. Putin’s cronies and threaten more debilitating measures should Mr. Putin invade Eastern Ukraine.

But, curiously, Mr. Obama did not call a NATO heads of government summit in Brussels last week — a missed opportunity. Mr. Obama is the leader of the NATO alliance and needs to demonstrate publicly to Mr. Putin the line he cannot cross in Europe. That is the surest path to peace.

Mr. Obama’s ultimate test will be on the most important principle at stake — does Ukraine have a right to choose its future? Some U.S. opinion leaders advocate that Ukraine agree to become a neutral state to resolve the crisis. But this gives away far too much to Mr. Putin, rewarding him for his aggression.

As in the Cold War, the more effective strategy is for the United States to stick to its defense of freedom and wait out Mr. Putin. NATO and the EU are stronger than the Russian dictator in right and might as well as spirit.

Nicholas Burns, a longtime U.S. diplomat, is a professor of international politics at Harvard University. He wrote this for The Boston Globe.

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