Here are the real lessons of the crisis in Ukraine: Russia is not a great power, and Vladimir Putin is hardly the master grand strategist that many American Cold Warriors have been weirdly eager to believe.
Or these should be the lessons that Western leaders take away and broadcast to the world. I’ve been disturbed by the Obama administration’s rhetorical response these past few days—the drumbeat that Putin is on “the wrong side of history” and that his actions will bear “costs” and “consequences”—because it’s the sort of rhetoric that can’t be meaningfully translated into action. History is not some Hegelian juggernaut arcing toward destiny, and to believe otherwise is to overestimate the force of righteous words and a little nudging. (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was said to be on the wrong side of history, yet somehow he’s still around.) As for that nudging, there are no consequences—none that Obama or European leaders could credibly threaten—that would keep Putin (or any other Russian leader) from doing whatever it took to hang on to Ukraine.
None of this is to say that we should simply shrug at Putin’s aggression. But no one should suffer any illusions about the effect that our costs and consequences will produce. Which leads to the big questions: What are we aiming for? How do we want this crisis to be settled? What can we do to get there?
The primary goal is, or should be, to make things right in Ukraine: to stabilize its economy, assure its territorial integrity, and ensure free and fair elections in May. A subset of this goal is to do all this, if possible, with Russia’s cooperation.
Two things have to be kept in mind. First, for any Russian leader in history, Ukraine is vital: as a leading market, supplier, and buffer to Western encroachment. Second, Putin really views the protests in Ukraine as the product of a Western plot to wrest the country away from Russia’s orbit. He’s wrong, but everything in his background leads him to see conspiracies, and he would have found it “no coincidence, comrades,” that the initial demonstrators in Kiev were protesting then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s retreat from a closer relationship with the European Union.
Secretary of State John Kerry sent the right signals in Tuesday’s press conference in Kiev. “We’re not seeking confrontation,” he said. The United States “would prefer to see this de-escalated, managed through international institutions.” He said he came to Kiev to proclaim Americans’ solidarity with the Ukrainian people in their battle for rights and freedom. But he also affirmed Russia’s vital interests in Ukraine—its military base, “strong ties,” and “long history”—and recognized that there will always be strong relations between the two countries.
“But,” Kerry added, Ukraine’s relations with Russia “should not be at the expense of having a relation with the rest of the world.” This is where the task turns delicate: How to open Ukraine to the rest of the world—a process that was underway until Yanukovych yanked it to a halt—while persuading Putin that the trend poses no threat to Russian interests?
The answer—maybe the only answer, the only way out of this crisis—lies in the upcoming elections. Let the Ukrainian people decide which way they want to go. Russia-leaning candidates will run, maybe one of them will even win. Certainly there’s no guarantee that the winner—or a majority of the Ukrainian people—will want to embrace the West exclusively.
A case can be made that Putin committed a huge strategic blunder in this crisis. Had he simply stood by and waited for the elections—had he used Ukrainian proxies to clamp down on the more militant protesters rather than send black-masked storm troopers to occupy the Crimean peninsula (which is under de facto Russian control and populated largely by Russian loyalists)—he probably would have won in the end. The Western nations, assured of the allegiances to democratic forms, would have backed away. Ukraine would still need Russian aid and trade to survive. Even with some movement by Ukraine toward the EU, Moscow would retain its dominance.