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Getting to Yes with Putin

PARIS – In the showdown with Russia over Ukraine, the weaknesses and divisions in European policy have been as encouraging for Russian President Vladimir Putin as America’s hesitant approach to Syria was. If Europe is to act responsibly, three key concepts should define its policy toward Russia: firmness, clarity, and a willingness to find an acceptable compromise.

Without firmness, nothing is possible. To be sure, Europe and the US made mistakes in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The US, in particular, can be accused of acting arrogantly and unnecessarily humiliating Russia. But the Soviet Union’s demise was the result of a long string of missteps, beginning with pre-Soviet Russia’s inability to come to terms with modernity. Post-Soviet Russian leaders have yet to confront those failures.

By adopting an aggressive, revisionist stance, Putin has made a historic and strategic mistake. Putin’s model should have been Peter the Great. His ambition should have been to tie Russia’s future to that of Europe. Instead, Putin turned for inspiration to Nicholas I, the most reactionary of Russia’s nineteenth-century czars.

The failure of Putin’s policy can be seen by comparing Russia with China. The gap between the two – in terms of each country’s behavior and achievements – has never been greater. At the G-20 Summit in Brisbane this month, China played its hand masterfully, highlighting its goodwill, particularly on the issue of climate change. Russia, meanwhile, appeared self-isolated – pathetically so, given the impact of its seclusion on its economy.