Russia’s seizure of Crimea and what may follow are works in progress. With the hundredth anniversary of World War I’s start looming, no one wishes to turn this land grab into 1914. Russian President Vladimir Putin implicitly recognizes the danger. Russia, he says, harbors no ambition over and will not venture into eastern Ukraine. We’ll see.
The expansion of NATO eastwards, George W. Bush’s unilateral termination of the ABM Treaty in 2001, misguided wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and what Russians perceive as excessive arrogance and repeated claims of exceptionalism on the part of the U.S. elite provoked genuine Russian resentment and animosity against America. Putin, with a finely tuned political ear, has become the expression of that resentment and humiliation. Indeed, politicians anywhere would give virtually anything for opinion ratings as high as Putin’s are today.
Further, Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have, at best, a cool relationship. Body language suggests neither is fond of the other -- in that regard Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may share a common reaction. The result is a collision of interests, cultures and psyches. Both the West and Russia can mount strong argument over Crimea representing vastly different interests. Unfortunately, both sets of interests exist in different universes meaning reconciliation will not occur overnight.
Under these circumstances and assuming Putin does not move farther west into Ukraine, the best course of action may be in form, not substance. The U.S. and the West should assume a posture of sorrow and disappointment towards Russia, mourning actions that will only destabilize and not improve security and prosperity for all. Against that tone, the U.S. and its allies should announce, reluctantly, imposing sanctions and other measures against Putin’s assimilation of Crimea.
Symbolic actions with NATO with visits by high level civilian and military officials to capitals; staff exercises to improve inter-European deployments of forces; and other steps to reassure allies and bolster deterrence are essential. Interestingly, deploying more anti-ballistic missiles to Poland and also to the Czech Republic designed to counter potential Iranian systems makes no military or political sense as Russia has tens of thousands of short-range nuclear weapons against which a handful of missiles are useless.
This is not 1938. It need not be 1945 either if we understand what motivates Russia and Putin and act accordingly.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, Senior Advisor at Washington D.C.’s Atlantic Council. His latest book, due out this Fall, is A Handful of Bullets: How the Murder of an Archduke a Century Ago Still Menaces Peace Today.