07/21/2014 10:19 am ET Updated Sep 20, 2014

The West and Russia: Naiveté Without Borders?


The tragedy of Malaysia Airlines MH17 is the price we pay for the naiveté of the West concerning Russia's Vladimir Putin, the soft response to his aggression against Ukraine and for the division, mostly of our own making, among allies. When we loose sight of our basic interests, our fundamental values in the urge to satisfy short-term popular demands, hoping for problems to go away, when we choose appeasement instead of determined action, if we just wait and look away, we sow the seeds of problems lot greater. Let's face the facts: this tragedy would never have happened, had the West taken the dangers of Russian support for the insurgents in Eastern Ukraine seriously. We should have found ways to prevent him from arming the rebels with sophisticated weapons including ground to air missiles.

While leaders in the West are now scrambling to find ways to force Putin to take some responsibility, they should look at themselves and accept their own very serious responsibility. There were signs on the road, which were never heeded. There were warnings from, mainly Central Europe about the "nature of the beast," which were shown aside as being motivated by the past. There were signals, by Russian democrats, which were discarded. Naiveté was abundant and some 300 innocent civilians just paid the price.

There is a danger that he will yet again be let off the hook. He is already sweet talking himself out of the mess he has created by calling for "independent and unhindered investigation" aimed at putting the blame on somebody else than himself. Stop making phone calls to him. He is well prepared for phone calls. He knows by now that he just needs to use the right tone and language and he will be able to at least stir confusion, raise doubt about his responsibility. Clearly, he is already making some progress: the West is once again divided on how to react to the Russian made tragedy. The surprising position of some Central European allies is telling.

It is time for us to realize that the problem of Vladimir Putin is not going to go away. A clear and united message from the US and the EU at the outset of the Ukraine crisis would have made a huge difference in containing him. The cynicism of governments driven by short-sighted business interests, resulted in an even more self-confident Russian leader. The continued, almost tragic dependence of parts of Europe on Russian oil and gas keeps his stranglehold steady. The half-hearted sanctions imposed upon his inner circles all lead him to believe that he can get away with anything.

While I hope to be proven wrong, unfortunately, there is reason to believe, that this "wake up call" will be just another one in the line of wake up calls to the West. We do not want to see eye to eye with the strategic problem of dealing with an illiberal and authoritarian model which, if we continue our policies, is a challenge for now, but will soon enough turn into a real threat. There is a strong probability that our leaders will complain about the bloody alarm, not the fire, cut out the disturbing ring tone, and go back to sleep, like they always do. Unfortunately the fire will not go out.

We should watch very carefully the "Putin-Verstehers" (the German expression for those who are understanding to Putin) within NATO. Some of them are just cynical, in the case of others it's about a lot more. The Russian authoritarian model, the murky business deals are increasingly attractive to some in our midst. The transformation of leaders in Central and Eastern Europe, once champions of democratic transition, is scary. Their reaction to the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner is telling. It cannot just be explained by important economic relationships, pending energy contracts only. It is also about the attraction to the Russian model as an alternative to the rule of law, to a transparent market economy, press freedom, to the checks and balances our democratic model imposes on our political leaders.

On a somewhat different note, for the sake of the integrity of the European Union, we can just hope that as a result of the next chapter of the political horse-trading selecting its next batch of leaders, we will not see a "Putin-Versteher" in the position of High Representative succeeding Baroness Ashton. Why help the demise of the West from within. We have enough enemies of our democratic way of life already on the outside.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly: both Germany and the United States need to do more, a lot more, to end the farce, and put the continuing saga of spying on each other behind them. They should see eye to eye with the fact, that even on this one, Vladimir Putin has outsmarted them.

Or are we really the community of Naiveté Without Borders?