A Vaccine Against Russia
We have both a Putin and a Russia problem. The West needs a strategy.
Classic strategy manuals counsel that the first step in devising a defense is to recognize your own weaknesses.
This principle applies to the West’s strategy toward Russia—above all to Europe, which is particularly vulnerable to Moscow. In this respect, the current Russian aggression resembles the virus visited on us by China. We are currently dealing with a Russian virus, and we need a vaccine.
In the first phase of pandemic control, we had to fight for the lives of those particularly vulnerable to the virus. Because of our unpreparedness, millions of people died—first, those who were, for various reasons, especially susceptible to Covid-19 because of various risk factors. At the same time, the search began for a vaccine that would immunize us against the coronavirus.
In the same way, in light of the nature of Russian politics we know that Moscow, even after its strategic failure in the war against Ukraine, will not stop trying to disintegrate and weaken the West from within.
Fortunately, the current Russian attack has, at the same time, shed a strong light on the ways in which Russia has sought to achieve its objectives in the West. Today, therefore, Western countries may be more ready to take defensive action—that is, a kind of vaccination campaign.
In a way, it was easier to resist the Soviet offensive after the Second World War: Moscow openly formulated its aggressive objectives. One could readily build a containment strategy. Today, that policy is not so easy to repeat. Yet Russia, after what it has done, should be cordoned off and confronted with a choice: It can respect the norms of civilization, including international law, or become a relic. For many reasons, such a plan cannot be implemented fully today, although the extensive sanctions imposed on it will seriously weaken Moscow. Two lines of response are plausible: a classic military defense—i.e., NATO—and the immunization of the West against what will be a recurring Russian virus.
In seeking a vaccine against the Wuhan virus, we first had to learn the structure of the virus. The same is true of the Russian virus, which has three components.
First: Moscow will not stop trying to dismember and weaken the West from within.
The first component of a response must be to limit the West’s far-reaching readiness to grant Russia special rights and preferential treatment just because Moscow wants them, because it “deserves” them, or because we supposedly need Russia for something.
In Western Europe, especially in Germany and France, this purported need is explained by history and geopolitics; but a careful reading of history and geopolitics should teach us a completely different lesson. This lesson should be one of profound mistrust of Russian policy and constant scrutiny of its intentions. There can be no turning a blind eye to Moscow’s violations of international law or its signed commitments.
I remember my discussions in the 1990s in Strasbourg with supporters of admitting Russia to the Council of Europe despite Moscow’s radical failure to meet the criteria for membership. “You cannot NOT admit Russia,” they said. “After all, it is such a great country, with such a history.” They made the familiar arguments about literature, music, and the need for “dialogue” with Russia regardless of what Russia itself and its leadership do, although such an approach is not a concept known to Moscow.
We see the same argument today, made with the same naiveté. Vladimir Putin has no desire for either negotiations or dialogue, and those who keep trying have no NATO or EU mandate to negotiate. Putin would do better to talk directly with Volodymyr Zelenskyy about a quick end to its bloody aggression and withdrawal from Ukraine. The problem, of course, is that such attempts at negotiation could prepare the ground for a future postwar “reconciliation” with Russia. Leading the way are those countries that even before the war were famous for their specially delicate treatment of Russia and Putin—namely, Germany, France, and Austria.
Contrary to what is often claimed in the West, there is no special need to talk to Putin directly, even if he remains in power after the war. There were no summit meetings between the United States and the USSR between 1959 and 1972, and nothing catastrophic happened.
Second: The thread of dependence must be broken.
The second component of the vaccine must counter the dependence of business interests on Russia by carefully reviewing the West’s economic contacts with Russia and keeping only what is necessary and safe. We must avoid anything that might make us dependent on supplies from Russia or that might support Moscow’s ability to exert political pressure by means of economic instruments.
True, it will be difficult to give up all imports of Russian raw materials: In fact, it does not absolutely have to be done. What is important is that doing so or not doing so must not influence the policy of Berlin or Vienna. It is Moscow that must be conscious of its dependence on being able to export goods to the West, rather than the West’s being hyper-aware of the need to import goods from Russia.
This component must also apply to the treatment of Russian oligarchs, who are known to have played the role of a diversionary front in Moscow’s campaign to influence local elites. We must put an end to Londongrads and colonies of Russian nouveau riche in France, Italy, Austria, even the United States. These are prime locales for the laundering of money stolen from Russia by the Putin-licensed “capitalists” who have been valued in the West. They have robbed average Russians, and they do not represent normal business.
Elimination of the financial “safe havens” around the world, along with laws that mandate revealing final ownership of companies and other financial instruments such as blind trusts, will also be of paramount importance in the struggle against autocrats, oligarchs, or international criminal gangs.
Third: Russia’s ideological diversion must be disarmed.
This is the third component of the vaccine against Russia. There are politicians and propagandists (sometimes academics and think tanks, too) who, in the name of “realism,” support Moscow’s policies—imitating and propagating, whatever the circumstances, the systemic patterns introduced by Putin in Russia. These patterns occur in various shades of nationalist authoritarianism.
Combating these manifestations of the Russian disease may be difficult, but the task cannot be ignored. For example, there must be a way to place Viktor Orbán of Hungary and his diplomacy under special surveillance. We cannot be certain about whether the Hungarians are passing debates and findings from NATO and EU summits on to the Russians in some form. Thus, Orbán and his people should be subject to a certain amount of segregation.
Recall the sanctions imposed on Austria when Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party formed a coalition government with Wolfgang Schüssel’s People’s Party, even though EU law and the Austrian constitution were not violated and Haider did not, as Orbán and Le Pen are doing today, seek any special relationship with Putin. It is time for Hungary to receive similar treatment today, which would also have a restraining effect on illiberal tendencies in Poland and elsewhere.
The anti-Russia vaccine must be used not only to combat the adoption of Russia’s political models, like the deliberate retreat from democratic norms, the rule of law, freedom of the media, or the treatment of political opposition as an enemy that has no right to participate in public life. Alarm should also be prompted by any coalition of Putin’s friends that announces a fight against the EU—that is, that seeks to dismantle a united Europe.
In this systemic and destructive behavior toward the EU, the cohesion of the Union as a security community is at stake. Its dismantling has been Moscow’s aspiration since the advent of the European Community in the late 1950s. Thus, part of the vaccine must build resistance to information diversion, especially in cyberspace.
We can be sure that the temporarily intimidated opponents of the anti-Russian vaccine will raise their heads again once the war is over. Similarly, Russia’s anti-democratic instincts, hostile to the West, will persist. Abandonment of the campaign for “de-Nazification,” even after Russia has lost the war, will not be possible. A “three-in-one” vaccine against Russia should therefore become a strategic political program of the EU and NATO, not only their institutions but their member states. President Joe Biden implied as much during his Warsaw speech in March of 2022.
This is a good time to make the vaccine part of the West’s strategic resilience project. The key here will be the intelligent and watertight operationalization of all three components of the Russia project. There will be problems with this, because almost no country (including Poland and the United States) is free from vulnerability to the components of the Russian virus. However, as the current Russian aggression shows, the stakes are high. They include the survival of a free, democratic, and secure Europe and of the transatlantic alliance.
And if a vaccine is not feasible, we need at least few basic Western conditions before returning to “normalcy” in our relations with Russia: first, the removal of Putin from power—a task, obviously, for the Russians themselves. Russians have a long tradition of eliminating leaders, like the czars, who have done wrong to their country. Second, punishment of war criminals: The trials should preferably take place in Moscow, where the catharsis can best help Russians understand the evils of Russian imperialist politics. Third, due compensation to Ukraine for both human and material losses inflicted by Russian aggression. The UN Security Council Compensation Commission established after the first Iraqi war could serve as a model (with oil-for-food logic, in which compensation is exchanged for the weakening of some sanctions).
Not to insist on these minimal conditions would be a sin against both justice and the future peace of Europe.
Roman Kuźniar is professor and chair of Strategic Studies at the University of Warsaw. He is a former diplomat and a former adviser to the president of Poland for international affairs (2010–15).
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe