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Maciej Olchawa

Putin Doesn’t Follow Rules, So Why Should We?

The bare-chested, horse-riding, Siberia fly-fishing, parachute-gliding bully is back. And this time he’s after Ukraine. As world leaders are deciding what to do and Western experts are calling for decisive action, Vladimir the Bully has declared that the Russian Federation reserves the right to intervene in any country that it sees fit. 

Moscow graffiti. Author:  Kolin Z, source: Flickr

Moscow graffiti. Author: Kolin Z, source: Flickr

Playground Honor

With Russian propaganda calling Ukrainians “fascists” and “neo-Nazis” and the de facto invasion of the Crimean peninsula by well-armed, professional soldiers without any national insignia, the debate over the appropriate response may seem confusing to some. So, let’s break it down to the basics: playground honor. This time-tested code, which all of us knew as kids, basically comes down to: no tattling, playing by the rules (everyone hates cheaters), sharing, waiting your turn, and not being a wuss. Not everyone may be interested in the historical intricacies of the Crimea or in Stalin’s murderous ethnic cleansing and deportation of the Crimean Tatars (the main reason why currently close to 60% of the peninsula’s inhabitants are ethnic Russians), but we all should understand the sacred do’s and don’ts of the playground.

Right now almost everyone is asking themselves the same question: “What do we do?” The answer to that question depends on who you are on the playground and what options you have.

 The Kid Getting Beat Up

Ukraine is a brave nation and throughout this crisis (and possibly war) it surely won’t want to be called a wuss. The government has already called for the mass mobilization of the Ukrainian army, citizens in Kyiv are declaring that they will defend their country, and several Ukrainian coast guard posts have refused to surrender their weapons to the “nationless” troops that surprisingly resemble Spetsnaz soldiers.

Ukrainians feel that they proved to the world that, by taking matters into their own hands during the mass demonstrations on the Euromaidan, Ukraine can have a brighter future.

And because nobody likes a tattle tale, they may be tempted to stand up to the bully on their own and hope that – as is usually the case in the schoolyard – someone will stop the fight before it gets too serious. This would be a serious mistake.

Ukraine has every right to tattle tale because it made a deal in 1994 that it would be allowed to do so if someone bullied it (i.e. invaded its borders). The Budapest Memorandum guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for its nuclear arsenal. The government in Kyiv has recently called on the U.S., UK, and Russia – the signatories of this agreement – to sit down and find a peaceful solution to the tension at hand. So far, the Kremlin has not responded. “Any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing,” President Obama said. Regardless of the fact that this violation is already underway, what if Putin decides to invade Ukrainian territories that fall outside of the Crimean Autonomy, and the United States – under the terms of the Budapest Memorandum – is obligated to act?

It’s in the interest of the U.S. and UK to not let it come to that because if it does, and they don’t act decisively, this will have grave implications for the West’s collective security.

If the memorandum that was signed in 1994 is just a paper filled with empty words, what credibility will the U.S. and its partners have in their efforts of nuclear non-proliferation?

Their inability to act will completely undermine the value of any international security agreements.

Ukraine played by the rules and acted responsibly by giving up the nuclear weapons that it inherited from the Soviet Union. Now, its our turn to hold up our end of the bargain.

The Bully

Like any bully, Putin’s Russia will see how far it can go before someone punches it in the nose. On the other hand, it may not have to come to that because most of the time all it takes to scare off a bully is simply to stand up to him. Until that happens, the bully will keep on terrorizing the playground. Reasoning with bullies is out of the question because they are immune to logic since it is incompatible with their desire to project power. Many experts have argued that Putin is digging his own grave, the he overreached, and that Russia will become isolated. All that is true but these arguments fall on deaf ears. When seeing someone get beat up, it won’t do any good to say to the playground bully, “Stop doing that or else in the 10 years you’ll end up a high-school dropout with a juvie record and nobody will want to talk to you.” For the bully, and the victim, all that matters is now.

The “No-Bullies-Allowed” Club

The members of this club are kids that have the tendency to say, “Listen. We’ll give you our milk money, just don’t hurt us.” Thus, conflict was avoided, but at a price. The European Union, unfortunately, has often acted in this way. It is highly dependent on Russian gas and has historically pursued a “Russia first” policy.

The Eastern Partnership – a noble but still underfunded initiative – is unable to help when Moscow starts throwing its weight around.

The EU (a NobelPeace prize laureate) is very good at dialogue, negotiations, and compromise. But Putin is not showing willingness to talk. Although the sophistication of the Kremlin’s absurd justifications for invading Ukraine could be compared to the typical grade-school argument “Because I wanna” or “Because Ukraine’s stupid,” Moscow is insisting on waging a full-scale propaganda war: Russian citizens are on the brink of annihilation at the hands of fascist Ukrainians and President Putin has to save them.

The Soviet adage “if you tell a lie over and over it will become true” is in full swing.

It is important for Ukraine not to respond to any provocation because the experience in Georgia in 2008 has shown that many of the Kremlin’s apologists in Brussels will say, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was bad, but the Ukrainian army used force.” As silly as this sounds, over time, it blurs the picture and changes the narrative from bully vs. victim to two kids fighting in the park.

The Kid who wants to be Batman

There is usually one kid on the playground that is too tough for the bully to pick on. Others are naturally drawn to him for protection because he stands up for what’s right. He prides himself as being like the Dark Crusader – appreciated by some, misunderstood by many, feared by all. Unfortunately, he doesn’t always live up to these virtues. The schoolyard pest isn’t fond of him because he poses a challenge, but the bully also knows that he would have not chance whatsoever if it came down to a fight. All our 3rd grade Batman would have to do is step up and the bully would be screaming “uncle!” before a single punch was thrown. But if he’s not willing to act the part, then he should stop talking like Batman and hand over the cape.

If something isn’t done now about Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, than it will have to be done in five or ten years – if at that time anyone still believes in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty.

(By the way, why is Russia staging military maneuvers in the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad?) Appeasing Putin has not worked so it’s time to get tough. The best strategy right now for the U.S. and EU is to follow the advise that Homer Simpson gave to his son about bullies: “So next time this boy thinks your gonna through a punch, you throw a glob of mud in his eye! And then you sock him when he’s staggering around blinded! And if you get the chance, get him right in the family jewels.”

Since bullies don’t follow any rules, why should we?

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Maciej Olchawa is an adviser in the European Parliament. Author of books “Imperial Games: Ukraine in the United States’ Geopolitical Strategy” and “Stars and Trident: The European Integration of Ukraine.”

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Read also:

Russia, Ukraine, the Neighbourhood: Changing Putin’s Risk Calculus

The Empire That Will Not Speak Its Name

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MACIEJ OLCHAWA grew up in Chicago and attended Loyola University where he received a BA in history and international studies. He graduated from Jagiellonian University in Krakow with an MA in Central and Eastern European studies and an MA in Ukrainian studies. Between 2008 and 2012, he served as a policy adviser on Ukraine in the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. He lives in Brussels.

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