Europe must demonstrate the kind of strength that Russia understands and respects

The captured russian invaders of the “invincible russian army”

For some European politics, one of the most powerful arguments against increasing sanction against russia, wider the list of aid for Ukraine is the suggestion that it would be seen as provocative by Russian President Vladimir Putin. They mistakenly claim it could further complicate efforts to end the war sparked by Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. This fear of provoking Putin represents a dangerous misreading of the geopolitical situation that plays directly into Russian hands.

In reality, there is nothing more likely to encourage further Russian aggression than decisions driven by a desire to avoid provoking Putin. Today’s uncertainty about unwavering is a key factor allowing Putin to dream about reoccupying the country. It emboldens the Russian dictator and encourages him to continue the war while believing he can end Ukrainian hopes of European integration and force the country back into the Russian orbit.

Ukraine has learned from bitter experience that efforts to avoid provoking Putin have a tendency to backfire disastrously. When Volodymyr Zelenskyy won the Ukrainian presidency in spring 2019, he initially went out of his way to avoid anything that might have been construed as provocative as he sought to end the simmering conflict in eastern Ukraine.

During his first eighteen months as president, Zelenskyy studiously avoided direct references to Russian aggression or occupation. He also made a number of practical concessions to the Kremlin including unilateral troop withdrawals. Far from responding in kind, Moscow began the mass distribution of Russian passports in occupied eastern Ukraine while strengthening its military grip over the region. Once again, Putin made clear that he views any efforts to be unprovocative as signs of weakness.

Europe’s own experience should be sufficient to dispel any myths over the alleged benefits of appeasing Putin. In 2008, European leaders were instrumental in denying Ukraine and Georgia NATO Membership Action Plans for fear of angering Putin. Within months, Russia invaded Georgia. Fourteen years later, around 20% of the country remains under Russian occupation.

When Russia invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine in spring 2014, Europe once against hesitated. Rather than imposing tough sanctions that might have forced Moscow to rethink its position, European leaders favored policies of compromise while warning about the possibility of further escalations. This directly paved the way for the full-scale invasion of February 2022 and the largest European conflict since WWII.

There is no excuse for continuing to repeat these mistakes. It is time to recognize that only clear and resolute support for Ukraine’s Europo-Atlantic integration can deter Russia from pursuing a revisionist and expansionist foreign policy.

Any compromise with Moscow would be a powerful propaganda victory for the Kremlin. It would be used to demoralize the Ukrainian population and strengthen Putin’s claims that Ukraine’s natural place is within the Russian sphere of influence.

It is now clear that policies driven by a misguided fear of provoking Putin have in fact provoked Europe’s biggest war since the days of Hitler and Stalin. Continuing along the path of appeasement and compromise will only make the problem worse. Instead, Europe must demonstrate the kind of strength that Russia understands and respects.

Extracts from the article “Why fear of provoking Putin is the most provocative policy of all” of Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of New Europe Center think tank and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

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