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15 February 2022updated 01 Mar 2022 4:52pm

In the face of Russian aggression, the West can and must rediscover its strength

If Western leaders cannot stand up to Putin, they should not be in the business of geopolitics at all.

By Jeremy Cliffe

In a 1967 experiment the psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier subjected a number of unfortunate dogs to electric shocks. One group was given the opportunity to escape and did so, while a second group remained captive. When, however, a chance to escape was then offered to the latter group, they did not take it. They had come to accept the shocks.

The psychologists termed this “learned helplessness”, an idea that became influential in studies of self-fulfilling stress, apathy and fatalism in humans.

It can also be applied to entire societies. That, at least, is the argument of the 2022 Munich Security Report, which was published on 14 February. The report appears annually ahead of the Munich Security Conference – the top gabfest of transatlantic foreign policy and defence elites – and functions as a barometer of the West’s geopolitical sense of itself. This year’s report argues that: “Just like people can suffer from ‘learned helplessness’… societies, too, may come to believe that they are unable to get a grip on the challenges they are facing.” It includes an international poll showing pluralities of respondents in agreement that “my country has no control over global events”, a sentiment particularly prevalent in democratic Western states.

The estimated 130,000 Russian troops now concentrated on the borders of Ukraine make for an ominously apt backdrop. At the time of writing, Western governments are warning of an imminent invasion involving massive air strikes, an attack on Kyiv and a bid to topple Ukraine’s government. All eyes are on Vladimir Putin who, as a Financial Times headline puts it, “leaves the West guessing”. Who is advising Putin? How reckless is he prepared to be? What is his vision of Russia’s history and present place in the world?

The frenetic speculation flatters the inscrutable Russian president, imbuing him with the aura of an agenda-setter, a barrel-chested man of the moment, a spirit of the age, a “synthesis of the inhuman and the superhuman”, as Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of Napoleon in 1887. The West is relegated to a position of passivity and helplessness as its leaders file in succession to Putin’s Kremlin court to perch at the end of that exaggeratedly long marble table and try to divine his plans.

Enough. Whatever happens next, and especially if Putin escalates matters in Ukraine, a reality check about the man, his regime and the West itself is long overdue. For Russia’s president is no ingenious 3D chess player, nor is he ultimately in a position of strength, and to act as if he is gives him far too much credit.

Keep hold of the following facts. Russia’s GDP is smaller than Italy’s and has stagnated for most of the past decade. Its military budget amounts to barely 7 per cent of Nato’s combined defence spending. Real disposable incomes in Russia were 11 per cent lower in 2020 than in 2013 and wealthy Russians, including many around Putin, prefer to keep their families and often ill-gotten money in the West. The peoples of Russia’s “near abroad” are increasingly alienated, thanks in no small part to the Kremlin’s actions and its unattractive, brittle political-economic model.

None of which is to say that Russia cannot wreak appalling devastation on Ukraine. Yet it takes no great brilliance to disrupt, destroy and alienate. Putin’s role on the world stage has been defined primarily by ineptitude. His record on Ukraine over the years, for example, has led a country once well-disposed to Russia to shift decisively towards social, political and economic Europeanisation. Any invasion now is effectively an admission of that failure. Putin is indeed to be feared – but as a dangerously delusional mediocrity, not a grand strategist.

If the West cannot stand up to Putin, it should not be in the business of geopolitics at all. Yes, it has suffered setbacks and learned the folly of its naive 1990s optimism. Yes, it was humiliated by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. Yet it is vastly wealthier and more powerful than Russia and its leaders govern with the free democratic consent of their peoples. As the Ukrainian author Nataliya Gumenyuk put it to me in Kyiv in January: “The West often speaks as if it were weak, or shy of its strength. It has more leverage and is stronger than it thinks.” It must “unlearn” its helplessness, in other words.

That means a maximalist and united Western response to any Russian invasion of Ukraine, targeted not at the Russian people but at Putin’s regime. Boot out Kremlin kleptocrats from the West; penalise the lobbyists, bankers and lawyers who abet them; target their banks with crippling sanctions; strip the shell companies they use for money laundering of their rights. Revise the 1997 Nato-Russia Founding Act to deploy intermediate-range missile systems in Nato’s eastern states and position new conventional forces there. Increase support to the Russian opposition, Kremlin-sceptic activists and politicians in other post-Soviet states. Arm and support a Ukrainian resistance. Britain, a destination of choice for many around Putin, can and must play a central role: the road to an engaged, values-led, responsible post-Brexit UK role starts in Mayfair.

If the West enacts these measures it may be surprised at the strength it can still wield. So, too, may others around the world, including Beijing, which would interpret reactions to any invasion of Ukraine as a guide to the price it would pay for seizing Taiwan. Learned helplessness can indeed be self-fulfilling. But so, too, can unlearning it. 

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War