U.S. Needs a Strong Moral Narrative to Combat Putin
by Paula J. Dobriansky
Freedom House Board Member
By treating Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as a discrete problem, the West has overlooked the broader strategic and moral dimensions of Moscow’s behavior. A new Western strategy encompassing these dimensions and drawing on the Cold War lessons is urgently needed. Only such a strategy — articulated through a presidential speech and subsequent communications by senior Western officials — can rally needed domestic support, be sustainable and succeed.
During the Cold War, the West had a strong moral narrative explaining why Soviet behavior was wrong and what the United States and its allies stood for. Winston Churchill defined it in his 1946 speech in Fulton, Mo. — the Soviets sought subjugation of other countries; the West aspired to establish freedom and democracy. This rationale galvanized Western policies for decades, and an important component of Western efforts was responding to the stated Soviet justifications for Soviet actions. Moscow’s assertions were challenged and its falsehoods exposed.
Although Russia is no longer a Marxist-Leninist state, President Vladimir Putin is seeking to reverse the consequences of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, which he has termed “a major geopolitical disaster.” Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine is a component of this strategic vision, not isolated misbehavior. Putin outlined this vision in a March 18 speech, billed as the “new Fulton speech” by the Russian media. Putin rejects the existing international system’s legitimacy and portrays Russia as the virtuous and long-suffering victim of Western plots, and therefore entitled to special rights vis-à-vis neighboring states.
Western failure to appreciate Russia’s broader doctrinal narrative — whether in Crimea or eastern Ukraine — has led to a crabbed view of Moscow’s policy. While President Obama and Western officials have challenged specific aspects of Putin’s policies, such as disregard for legal norms, no one has delivered a comprehensive rebuttal to Putin’s vision, recognizing it as a declaration of hostilities against the West and exposing the full range of its pathologies.
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