The key to understanding the Ukraine crisis is the realization that, contrary to most of the overt and hidden assumptions of Western commentators, Putin is in a weak position and the West is in a strong one. It doesn’t look like that and, listening to CNN or the BBC, it doesn’t sound like that either. But it’s true nonetheless.
Why do we think otherwise? The main reason is that we see that President Putin is in a tactically strong position. As President Obama noted in an overly lofty dismissal, Russia is at best a regional power. But since Ukraine is in the very same region, Russia enjoys a transparent advantage in this particular crisis. Strategically, however, Russia is weak. It is poorer than any single one of the major European powers; its economy is overly dependent on energy production; it needs foreign investment to develop new technologies, improve its human capital, and establish new industries.
Why then did Putin launch his annexation of Crimea and his subversion of eastern Ukraine? Well, to begin with, it wasn’t part of his original plan. Putin thought he had won when he pressured Ukraine’s bootboy president, Viktor Yanukovych, into breaking off negotiations with the European Union and dragging his country into a Eurasian Economic Union dominated by Russia. Ordinary Ukrainians rebelled against that, however, and when Yanukovych ordered his thugs to fire on the demonstrators, he fell from power and fled. Putin had lost the first hand of revolutionary bridge.
He then thought he could recoup his position by destabilizing Ukraine, regaining control of it by degrees, covering these moves in a smokescreen of propaganda about an illegitimate coup by neo-fascists in Kiev — wolf crying wolf, as Timothy Snyder put it — and moving a step further toward reversing the post-1989 European settlement. He seems to have calculated that the West would be too nervous, guilty, timid, and obsessed with its own economic interests to respond effectively. As with his invasion and occupation of Georgia, Putin would let the West’s anxieties cool, make a few superficial concessions, promise not to seize anything else (at least not for a while), and resume the game of diplomatic reassurance. His immediate first step is to prevent Ukraine from holding elections that would produce an indisputably legitimate elected government.
Putin was not entirely wrong in this calculation; some in the West, including some conservatives, plainly want to play his game. But he was not entirely right either. Both Washington and the European Union have condemned Moscow’s actions in the plainest terms. These may be merely words, but they cannot be easily withdrawn without some corresponding retreat by Putin. To be sure, the West’s actual responses — sending troops to the Baltic states, imposing financial sanctions on named allies of Putin — are as yet woefully inadequate. Reviving the plan for anti-missile installations in Central Europe is one stronger response that might cause some second thoughts in the Kremlin — it would reverse one of Putin’s own recent gains (and one of Obama’s first foreign-policy innovations). And, of course, there are divisions between the allies on how tough any future Western responses might be. But there is a genuinely new mood of criticism and skepticism toward Putin’s Russia in almost all Western capitals. What is wanting is a set of practical policies to turn that mood into a strategy.
President Obama cannot reasonably be expected to come up with that strategy. He has been unlearning most of his own ideas about foreign policy as this crisis has developed, and as Henry Kissinger has often pointed out, statesmen don’t have the time to develop new concepts when they are in government. That may be a mercy on this occasion. Fortunately, President Reagan left behind a strategic legacy for his successor to imitate: the policy of strategic and economic competition with the Soviet Union. That strategy, applied today with particular emphasis on energy, would gradually weaken Russia and, within Russia, Putin. And by weakening Russia strategically, we would give ourselves the time and opportunity to fashion the best tactical response to Putin’s subversion of eastern Ukraine. Our first step there must be to insist on all-Ukrainian elections — and force Putin either to accept them or to show just who is the neo-fascist in this game.