A couple hours ago I read that Francois Hollande has called for an end to the sanctions against Russia. The reaction from some quarters was predictable. The Russian press will be overjoyed at the idea of the sanctions being removed, as this would prove that they don’t work. Then again, the same people also say that they spit on the sanctions, and that it doesn’t matter whether or not they are removed. Never mind them, for a moment. They’ll still be doing their mental gymnastics if we leave them alone for a bit. I’m more concerned with the reaction of the anti-Moscow pundits.
No doubt this will soon be portrayed as betrayal and appeasement. Somebody’s going to make a reference to Nevillle Chamberlain, I guarantee it. These will be some of the same people who warned us about all the influence Russia had bought up in the West in places Berlin and especially London. Russian money was the fifth column of Europe, so to speak.
Personally I can stand these narratives, which absolve the US and European governments of all responsibility. Their only failing was that they were too naive and trusting. Any attempt to point out a causal relationship between Putin’s current behavior and the tolerance shown to him especially by European governments will be labeled “whataboutist.” They will throw out accusations of “moral equivalency,” no doubt.
Well I’m terribly sorry but this radical leftist is going to keep saying “I told you so.” What Putin and his cronies learned over the course of 15 years, is that the neoliberal system is ripe for gaming. Western nations, especially the US in this case, declared the market supreme. Of course the long history of capitalism has taught us nothing it hasn’t taught us that the market is indifferent to things like human rights and democracy. Everyone’s money is good in the market, and Russia’s leaders accumulated a ton of it thanks to high oil prices.
Essentially, Putin’s Russia today is a product of the neo-liberal triumphalism of the post-Soviet era. It began with the utter lack of concern Western powers showed over the fate of Russia in the 90’s- their lack of criticism over the crushing of protesters with tanks and armed troops in 1993. These people were supposed to embrace democratic values, yet nobody made any concerted effort to explain what those values were supposed to mean, or to make sure those who espoused these ideas knew what they were talking about. The most important human right, the one that mattered more than any other, was the right of private property and the profit derived from it. Nobody cared who got fleeced, only that there was money to be made.
After that, it continued with the acceptance of dirty money coming out of Russia, and the welcoming embrace of the first round of oligarchs.The very same men who made Putin possible were lauded as human rights crusaders living in exile. In the same period, Putin watched and learned many lessons from the US’ war on Iraq. He learned that when you’re powerful enough, you can impose your will as far as your army can reach. He learned that it was alright to take actions and declare whether or not they should be seen as setting a precedent or not. He learned that you could just make some flimsy excuse about protecting people to justify a war.
None of this absolves Putin and his circle of their responsibility for their actions, but any pundit, journalist, or intellectual who does not take into account all these enabling acts is engaging in rank hypocrisy and dishonesty. If Western nations don’t want whataboutist arguments and propaganda thrown in their face, they need to form a far more principled foreign policy, and this goes doubly so for the US. Putin’s cynical worldview draws its lifeblood from the failures of democratic regimes. If these regimes do nothing to improve their behavior, they have nobody to blame but themselves when they unleash monsters. Mistakes happen, but they need to be corrected. It’s called accountability.