Reckoning with Russia

DENVER – Anyone who believes that foreign policy choices come down to Manichean choices between good and evil need to look no further than the Ukraine crisis. It is truly, as former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher said of the Balkans, “a problem from hell.” Worse, resolving it will require a temperament and clarity of thought that has become increasingly rare at a time when leaders must be seen to emote, rather than to reason their way to wise choices.

There is enough blame in this crisis to go around, but that does not mean that there is moral equivalence. The most direct responsibility lies with the Kremlin, which, sadly, is far more interested in manipulating nationalist sentiment to preserve Russia’s crony capitalism than in making a clear choice to join the global economy.

Historically, President Vladimir Putin is by no means the first Russian leader to confront such a choice. But he seems to have a preference for shallow populism – a penchant for seeking ready-made symbols of legitimacy to win over a restive population. That makes him particularly unsuited to leading a great power in a time of trouble.

Russia today combines the worst features of capitalism and statism – conditions that Putin has had more than enough time to identify, analyze, and correct. His grasp of facts and his knowledge of what is wrong indicate that what is missing is the wisdom needed to respond appropriately.