The Many Misrepresentations of the West’s Approach to the Russia Crisis

February 18, 2022

Throughout this Russia crisis, Russia’s rhetoric has been consistent: Moscow is not to blame, but the United States, NATO, and Ukraine are at fault. As GMF’s Alliance for Securing Democracy has seen trending over recent weeks, Kremlin-linked accounts falsely assert that Western countries “need a war,” misrepresenting the motivations and interests of the United States and Europe, and in the case of France, amplifying voices calling for the country to leave NATO. Some prominent voices in the West, including former leader of the British Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn and US Fox News star commentator Tucker Carlson, have participated in spreading the idea that the United States and its allies were the main driver in the current escalation with Russia, and provided uninformed analyses of the different transatlantic diplomatic initiatives. And many more have dramatized divisions among Western partners, despite broad and consistent agreement.

The reality across the alliance is very different. The West is not stoking war, which is hardly in the interest of North American or European democratic leaders or citizens. President Joe Biden held a public address on February 15 to prepare US citizens for possible costs in case of a further invasion of Ukraine by Russia, saying outright, “I will not pretend this will be painless.” The same goes for Europeans, who would bear a greater cost to their economies from sanctions. It would be far more politically advantageous for President Bident to spend the first months of this key election year pushing through pieces of domestic legislation on infrastructure and social safety nets than focusing so deeply on foreign policy. The last thing President Biden needs is war.

 This crisis has brought the alliance back to its basic principles, and many lessons will be drawn for the future.

Similarly, French President Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic efforts in this crisis have often been misinterpreted. Some analysts in the West have questioned if his activism on the international stage and posture in the current crisis are motivated by his quest for reelection in France. Macron, according to this narrative, “needs a win” in foreign policy to compensate for domestic troubles. The opposite is likely to be right: French officials—and Macron himself—never had great hopes that the French diplomatic effort alone could bring an end to the crisis. In fact, if he was guided by French domestic politics considerations, Macron would have every incentive to stay away from the crisis and prudently call for a de-escalation from Paris. Meeting President Vladimir Putin in Moscow constituted a real risk of being humiliated (including drawing comparisons to EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s much-maligned Moscow visit) and very little chance of any success. At a time when he boasts a substantial lead in the polls, Macron does not need to boost his campaign by facing Putin in a bilateral meeting.

Russia and many Western journalists are also wrong to portray NATO as weakened with several major French presidential candidates pondering exit. This crisis has brought the alliance back to its basic principles, and many lessons will be drawn for the future. For France and Germany in particular, the past few weeks have been characterized by an unprecedented level of intelligence sharing with the United States. The process is in itself a success that will stay, whatever happens next. The analysis of the intelligence differs—which explains why France (and other Europeans) have questioned the “imminence” of the threat, and why Paris has not asked its non-essential diplomatic staff to leave Kiev so far—but the historical way that information was shared at the highest level cannot be undervalued.

In a situation short of military incursion, allies may choose to take different paths. The implementation of strong sanctions will be challenging, and the future of the relationship between the West and Ukraine will also be a subject of tension. But the common principles of protecting territorial integrity of sovereign countries and the ability of those countries to choose their own path are more robust now than at any other time in the last decade. A further incursion into Ukraine would likely only strengthen these principles and alliances even further.

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