In the absence of a hard headed analysis of western interest and Ukraine’s potential, and much less in the absence of a serious approach to Russia, western policy in Ukraine is all too likely to follow exactly the path that led to the Crimea disaster. We will combine loud and eloquent protestations about international law and the sacred principle of sovereignty with a failure to stabilize Ukraine. We will draw lines in the sand, red and otherwise, and our politicians will hasten to Ukraine to be filmed making cheap “We are all Ukrainians now” speeches.
And then, at leisure, Putin will bring the hammer down. Perhaps he will raise the price of gas… again. Perhaps he will stop Ukrainian trucks at the border. Perhaps the Russian banking system will reject or aggressively discount Ukrainian letters of credit. Perhaps he will push a political crisis or an oil embargo at just the time it brings on a major financial crisis — and perhaps some of his cronies will use their advance knowledge to make large bets in the financial markets. He and his allies will have many games to play, and the West will lack the will and in some cases the means to do anything about it. His aim will be to make western Ukraine an albatross for the West, even as he keeps his options open in the wealthier and more useful east and south.
Victories like the one in Crimea help Putin on several levels. He wins pieces of territory and burnishes his nationalist credentials at home, but he also undermines western norms and the confidence of others in western support. Does anyone think that the authorities in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan think the west would do more than send flowers and make speeches if any of these countries get in trouble with Russia? Do politicians in Latvia and Estonia sleep more soundly these days than they did three months ago? Does Iran worry as much about what Washington thinks as it did last year, or are China and Japan as confident as they used to be that the United States says what it means and means what it says? Putin wants a more multipolar world, and reducing American prestige and undermining its alliances gives him precisely that. The Crimean invasion was the latest, but is unlikely to be the last, in a series of moves that have steadily moved the world away from the path that Washington wanted and toward the shape that Putin likes.