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Stop Poking the Bear: The West Needs to Engage with Putin Not Castigate Him

Putin isn't being expansionist: he just wants Ukraine to remain a non-aligned buffer zone between Russia and the West. That's the voice of the non-interventionists, but haven't they been duped?

You don’t have to like Vladimir Putin, or doubt that he’s a nasty piece of work, to recognise that the Russian president’s reaction to the crisis in Ukraine is largely justified. The promise that Russia managed to extract from the West, as it watched its old empire crumble, was that NATO would not expand eastward and that the Baltic states and Poland would not be absorbed into the EU. Not only have Nato and the EU broken that promise, they have even sought to bring Ukraine – for centuries seen as umbilically tied to Russia – into the western fold. The West has tried to influence elections in Ukraine. It has backed the overthrow of a democratically elected president. Putin isn’t being expansionist: he just wants Ukraine to remain a non-aligned buffer zone between Russia and the West. He couldn’t survive the national humiliation of it becoming yet another western outpost. So cut him some slack: we need more diplomacy and fewer threats of reprisals.

That’s the voice of the non-interventionists but haven’t they been duped? Is a man who sends undercover troops into Crimea and then swears that they are locals defending their homeland really to be trusted? Ask the people of Georgia, whose country has been carved up by Putin, whether they think he has no interest in expansion. Ask most Ukrainian citizens, yearning for western democratic freedoms, whether Putin has a right to deprive them of those freedoms in the name of some bogus historical affinity. Of course autocrats have their reasons, but are they reasons we have to accept as justifiable? There is no moral equivalence between the ambitions of a repressive state and those of a repressed people. Putin needs to know that there is a line he cannot cross. Otherwise you can be absolutely sure he will cross it.


For the motion

Tony Brenton

Former British Ambassador to Russia

Former British Ambassador to Russia (2004-2008) who has been outspoken on the need for a reasoned dialogue between the West and the Kremlin over Ukraine

Sergey Karaganov

Russian foreign affairs specialist

Russian foreign and economic affairs specialist. Prof. Karaganov is the Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. He is a member of many Russian and foreign professional, public and philanthropic organizations, and is the author and editor of 28 books and papers, and more than 490 articles
Against the motion

Julia Ioffe

Senior editor at The New Republic

Senior editor at The New Republic. Prior to joining the magazine in the summer of 2012, Ioffe spent three years reporting from Russia, where she wrote for The New Yorker and Foreign Policy, as well as Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg Business Week, and the Columbia Journalism Review.

Edward Lucas

Columnist at The Times and National Security Expert

Columnist for The Times and consultant specialising in European and transatlantic security. Formerly a senior editor at The Economist, he is now a senior vice-president at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He has written several books including The New Cold War, a prescient account of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Deception, an investigative account of East-West espionage, and Cyberphobia, about the phenomenon of cybercrime. He is an advocate for Magnitsky Law sanctions against Chinese officials.

Nik Gowing

Presenter, BBC World News

Nik Gowing has been a main presenter for the BBC’s international 24-hour news channel BBC World News, since 1996, where he presents The Hub with Nik Gowing, BBC World Debates, Dateline London and location coverage. For 18 years he worked at ITN where he was bureau chief in Rome and Warsaw, and Diplomatic Editor for Channel Four News (1988-1996).