Indignant posturing notwithstanding, most Nato member states ought to be relieved that Ukraine is not one of them. If it had been, Nato’s charter would oblige the alliance to take military action in response to a Russian invasion. And everyone knows that western powers have no intention of going to war over Ukraine.
The grown-ups in Washington have long been warning that the question the crisis turns on is whether or not Ukraine joins Nato, a military alliance perceived as hostile by Moscow. That’s why old hands like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski have urged that membership ought to be ruled out in order to create the conditions for a compromise.
“The taproot of the trouble is Nato enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” wrote noted realist thinker John Mearsheimer in Foreign Affairs last week. “Since the mid-1990s, Russian leaders have adamantly opposed Nato enlargement and, in recent years, they have made it clear that they would not stand by while their strategically important neighbour turned into a Western bastion. For Mr Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president was the final straw. He responded by taking Crimea, a peninsula he feared would host a Nato naval base, and working to destabilise Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.”
Vladimir Putin’s response should have come as no surprise, once the US gave its backing to the removal by unconstitutional means of president Viktor Yanukovich in February. Russia’s 2008 military humiliation of Georgia had served ample warning that it is no more likely to tolerate its immediate neighbours joining Nato than Washington would stand by passively if China were drawing Mexico and Canada into an anti-US military alliance.
Mr Putin’s actions – seizing Crimea, and using economic and military pressure to prevent the US-backed authority in Kiev from governing the whole country – are entirely consistent with Moscow’s view of Ukraine as a strategic buffer vitally important to defend the land approaches to western Russia. And that’s not to mention the long-standing Russian view of Ukraine as an essential part of their own country and culture. “The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country,” wrote Henry Kissinger in the Washington Post last spring.
Mr Putin sees the creation of the current Ukraine government as a US intervention to change the facts on the ground. He has countered this through direct and indirect military actions in southern and eastern Ukraine.
Like Mr Kissinger and Mr Brzezinski, Putin sees the world through the lens of strategic realpolitik. The current generation of US policymakers appears to set greater store by the economic integration of the era of globalisation, imagining that sanctions and the threat of being cut off from those networks of integration will change Mr Putin’s calculations. But nine months into this crisis, there’s little sign that sanctions – painful though they may be – will force Russia to back down.
“Since the collapse of the Yanukovich government, the US and its allies have followed the usual playbook: ramping up sanctions and waiting for Moscow to cave in,” noted Harvard foreign policy expert Stephen Walt.
“Unfortunately, this view fails to recognise that Russia does have valid reasons to care about its border areas and still has cards to play. Sanctions are clearly hurting, but Putin probably anticipated them and is willing to pay the price. In the meantime, sanctions aren’t helping the sputtering European economy, and Ukraine is going from bad to worse.”
Sanctions are proving ineffective because Mr Putin doesn’t abide by the globalisation assumptions of Western policymakers.
“The Kremlin sees Russia’s future as separate from the rest of Europe’s,” writes long-time Russia analyst Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center. Russia will pursue a course independent of the West, building up its military capability and forging alliances with non-western powers, first and foremost China.
Analyst Anatol Lieven predicted four months ago that should Kiev seek a military solution to the separatist rebellion in the east, the result would be a Russian invasion. At that point, he warned, “the only question then will be where the Russian army will stop”.
That seems to be pretty much the point the crisis has now reached, with the world waiting for Mr Putin to set his terms. On Sunday, he called for “statehood” for eastern Ukraine as if to underscore that the current administration in Kiev won’t be allowed to rule over all of the country. He knows that the Europeans want a compromise despite pressing on with sanctions – besides fear of a war that no one has an appetite for, winter’s approach reminds them of Russia’s importance as a natural-gas supplier.
Realists like Mr Kissinger and Mr Brzezinski warned all along that a political solution will require abandoning the idea of bringing Ukraine into Nato, encouraging it instead to assume a strategic profile equivalent to that of Finland or Austria during the Cold War: independence, democracy and economies entirely integrated with the West, but strictly neutral in geopolitical terms.
But to the extent that US decision-makers are unable to grasp that Russia is acting rationally on the basis of its security concepts, western leaders may search in vain for a political solution, while doubling down in support of a Nato-inclined political order in Kiev that they know they can’t defend.
Tony Karon teaches in the graduate programme in international affairs at the New School in New York