What Motivates Russian Aggression, and What the U.S. Can Do to Curb It https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/politics-current-affairs/2016/12/what-motivates-russian-aggression-and-what-the-u-s-can-do-to-curb-it/

December 21, 2016 | Frederick W. Kagan
About the author: Frederick W. Kagan is the Christopher DeMuth scholar and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

As Vladimir Putin pursues increasingly aggressive policies, and successfully expands his country’s control of the Middle East, many Western observers have groped for explanations of his policies. Frederick W. Kagan provides come clarity:

Russia’s identity itself had collapsed as the revelations of [Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of “openness”] undermined the myths and narratives that had undergirded it for seven decades. [His successor] Boris Yeltsin could do nothing more than establish an identity of freedom and democracy—ideas that seemed increasingly bereft of value as the Russian economy collapsed in the 1990s.

Putin took power in 2000 determined to address these crises. He is redefining Russian identity in the terms the tsarist regime used in the 19th century—Russian Orthodoxy, nationalism, and strong government (they called it autocracy, but he does not). He claims the right to renegotiate the terms of the bad deals Russia made with the post-Soviet states, by force if necessary. He cites the plight of ethnic Russians in the new republics as justification for eroding or even erasing the sovereignty of those states. He seeks to restore Russia to the position of global eminence it had as the Soviet Union by re-establishing its positions in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. He stokes conflict with the West to distract it from these endeavors even as he blames the West for inventing the hostility he has created.

The West cannot appease its way out of this crypto-war. Putin requires conflict to justify his rule at home and his actions in the territory of the former Soviet Union. But Western appeasement cannot address problems that spring from deep within Russia itself. Putin is encouraging Russians to believe that they must regain suzerainty over their former empire, that they must weaken and fragment the West, that they must cut the United States down to size, and that the West will oppose them implacably in all these endeavors.  Appeasement can only draw him into further demands, since he cannot allow the hostility to wane.

The West, with the United States at its head, must rather persuade Putin and the Russian people to accept the terms they themselves negotiated for the post-cold-war settlement—or renegotiate those terms on an equal basis and in peace with their neighbors. We must persuade Russia that it will lose another confrontation, and that the consequences of another loss will be even worse than those of 1991. We must cajole Russia into developing a new national identity not bound in the subjugation of a large empire and military might but rather as a peaceful democratic state with an ancient tradition and a future of hope.

Read more on Critical Threats: http://www.criticalthreats.org/russia/kagan-understanding-russia-today-december-19-2016