Here's the meat of Gessen's essay [emphasis mine]:
First, brava to Gessen for an important point about the Maidan Revolution and Russia's ensuing military action in Crimea and eastern Ukraine: many analysts and journalists dismiss the role of Ukrainians altogether, and portray them as helpless pawns of either the West or Russia. What do most Ukrainians want their government to do; and what kind of country do they want to live in? These basic questions often get overlooked, because we've become accustomed to thinking of Ukrainians as pawns in outsiders' game.This narrative [of essentially blaming the Ukraine crisis on Western-NATO expansion into Russia's traditional sphere of influence] is not without merit. The bombing of Yugoslavia enabled an unprecedented rise in nationalist politics in Russia. And NATO expansion confirmed Russians’ worst suspicions about the West. Ukraine’s attempted move westward last year terrified the Kremlin, as did everything that has happened in that country since the protests began in Kiev last November.But the sleeping-bear story is missing two essential components: the role of Ukraine and its people, who have been fighting to choose their own destiny – indeed, this story tends to ignore the existence of Ukrainians altogether – and, ironically, the fact that Putin has his own agency.It is tempting to view Putin as merely the embodiment of Russia’s reaction to the actions of Western powers. It creates the illusion that he can be managed, or contained. If all he wants is a buffer zone between Russia and NATO, then the way to prevent a large European war is to give it to him, whatever the people of Ukraine might want. Let him keep Crimea, make Ukraine grant significant autonomy to its eastern regions and promise not to enter into any military alliances – and the Nobel Peace Prize is on its way.The only problem is that portraying Putin as an unlikable but, essentially, Western politician – one who formulates his strategic objectives in a way Western analysts can understand – misses the point entirely. Russia’s behavior over the past week of a fragile cease-fire in eastern Ukraine has shown this very clearly. Russia kidnapped an Estonian security officer on Estonian territory – the Russians claim he was arrested on Russian soil while spying – and is holding him in Russia. It has re-opened Soviet-era desertion cases against a large number of Lithuanian men. And Russia has ratcheted up its nuclear saber-rattling.All this points to the possibility that, rather than the beginning of the end of the conflict, the cease-fire is a stepping stone to the next stage of the crisis. That stage may or may not involve Ukraine, but it will definitely involve the use of force and, as it always happens in warfare, it will be bloodier and even more frightening than what came before.
Second, contrary to what some have argued, Putin did have a choice whether to invade Crimea and destabilize eastern Ukraine with weapons and fighters. His hand was not forced. This is what Gessen meant by "Putin has his own agency."
Third, kudos to Gessen for acknowledging that Putin "isn't like us" in the West. To many Western leaders' recent astonishment, Putin has no compunction telling one lie today, and a contradictory lie tomorrow. Why? Because he is a former KGB agent and homo soveticus; for him lying is like breathing: second nature. (See Russian writer Mikhail Shishkin's excellent essay on this topic.)
P.S. -- U.S. conservatives keep crowing that "Romney was right!" and Obama was wrong to criticize him when Romney said in March 2012 that Russia was "without question our number one geopolitical foe." They have some cause to gloat... although I didn't hear their concern back then, or until March 2014, about Russia's intentions. My only clarification here would be that Russia is not Putin. On the world stage, for all intents and purposes, the two are now one in the same. Yet it is not destiny that the West finds itself opposed to Russia, it is because of Putin.
Let's recall that in March 2012, Putin was Prime Minister and Dmitry Medvedev, his protege, was President. Putin had not yet become President again in May 2012, although many feared he would when Russia amended its constitution in 2008 to extend the president's term to six years. Nor had Putin yet cracked down on Russian media, NGOs, opposition political figures and public events. Prior to 2012, there was some hope among liberal Russians that Putin would let a new generation of modern, pragmatic politicians reform Russia. When Putin didn't, there were the most massive and violent street protests that Russia had seen in many years.
Even former Kremlin insiders say that, since 2012, Putin has become more insular, impulsive and unpredictable. And it wasn't until 2014 that Putin started describing the "Russian World" and Russia's "right to protect" ethnic Russians and Russian speakers wherever they may be; when he started substituting the word russkiy (ethnic Russian) for rossiskiy (regarding matters of Russian state and national interest).
Essentially, in Russia we are witnessing the frightening metamorphosis of a young, semi-reformist autocrat into a paranoid, bitter old dictator. Indeed, Putin first came to power in 2000. If we count Putin's term as ministerial "gray cardinal" under Medvedev and his likely re-election in 2018 and 2024, Putin will have been in power almost as long as Josef Stalin, and outlast at least three U.S. Presidents.
By Masha Gessen
September 15, 2014 | Reuters