Anne Applebaum: ‘We need to remove Russian money and influence from all of our political systems’

The American historian and journalist explains five keys to understanding Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the dangers it may lead to

Anne Applebaum about Russiaas Ukraine conflict
American historian Anne Applebaum in her home in Poland.Mateusz Skwarczek (Agencja Gazeta)

Among the books written by American historian and journalist Anne Applebaum is Red Famine, a monumental study of the policies of Joseph Stalin that caused the deaths of more than three million people due to famine in Ukraine between 1931 and 1933. She has also published an essay on fledgling autocracies, titled The Twilight of Democracy. A resident of Poland and an analyst for The Atlantic magazine, Applebaum has spoken to EL PAÍS via email to offer five key factors to understanding Putin’s attack on Ukraine.

1. Why is this happening?

Putin has invaded Ukraine because Ukraine’s determination to become a democracy is a genuine challenge to Putin’s nostalgic, imperial political project: the creation of an autocratic kleptocracy, in which he is all-powerful, within something approximating the old Soviet empire. Ukraine undermines this project just by existing as an independent state. By striving for something better, for freedom and prosperity, Ukraine became a dangerous rival. Ukraine’s “revolution of dignity” in 2014 – when a corrupt, lawless president fled the country – was exactly the kind of revolution Putin himself fears. He knows that if Ukraine were to succeed in its decades-long push for democracy and European integration, then Russians might ask: Why not us?

2. Why has our diplomacy failed?

We imagine that Putin is a leader like our leaders, who wants the best for his countrymen. But he is not. Putin’s goal is not a flourishing, peaceful, prosperous Russia, but a Russia where he remains in charge. He doesn’t care if Russians are poor, he only cares that they are docile. He doesn’t care about sanctions, because they don’t threaten his position, power or personal fortunes. More importantly, his past experience with Western sanctions made him skeptical.

3. Are sanctions useless?

Despite all of our talk, no one has ever seriously tried to end, rather than simply limit, Russian money laundering in the West, or Russian political or financial influence in the West. No one has taken seriously the idea that Germans should now make themselves independent of Russian gas, or that France should ban political parties that accept Russian money, or that the United Kingdom and the United States should stop Russian oligarchs from buying property in London or Miami. No one has suggested that the proper response to Putin’s information war on our political system would be an information war on his.

4. How far can this go?

This is not just an assault on Ukraine. This is an assault on the post-war order, the agreement that, in Europe at least, borders are not changed by force. Putin did this before, in 2014, but we mistakenly believed that his ambitions were limited. Now we see that his ambitions are unlimited. They may well extend to Poland, to the Baltic States or even to Germany. A few years ago, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, told the Munich Security Conference that German reunification was “illegal.” Everyone laughed. I don’t think he was joking. Putin remembers when the Soviet Union had an enormous presence in East Germany – he was part of it himself. He may be nostalgic for that time, just as he is nostalgic for the rest of the Soviet empire.

5. What should the West do now?

Now is the time for Europe and the US to completely rethink our strategy towards Russia. We need to remove Russian money and influence from all of our political systems, to sanction all of the oligarchs around Putin, to confiscate their Western property and to prevent them from doing business in our countries ever again. Germany and others must end their dependence on Russian gas. There can be no return to “normal” trade with Russia as long as the occupation of Ukraine continues.

We need to rethink the location of troops in NATO, to take far more seriously the defense of the eastern states as well as Germany, and to prepare the public for more military spending and for the possibility of a Russian attack.

We need new and different strategic thinking about Russia. How shall we reach ordinary Russians? How can we support the Russian opposition and Russian media? Where else, inside or outside Russia, can we put pressure on Putin and his cronies? How do we make him react to us and not vice versa?

Europe, finally, needs a foreign policy. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs failed miserably in his dealings with Russia, but that also represents a failure of European capitals to support him. Unless Europe can speak with one voice, Europe will be divided and weakened further by this crisis.

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