It is a startling turn of events that summons memories of crises leading to World War I and World War II. Russia has seized Crimea, a portion of the sovereign nation of Ukraine, and Ukraine has signed an agreement to forge closer links to the European Union.
World War I began when the nations of Europe felt obliged to go to war to honor their treaty obligations. The United States today has treaty obligations to defend Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Thus, Vladimir Putinís interest in reconstituting the Soviet Union has made everyone nervous.
World War II began after Hitler began an expansionist policy that was camouflaged by his professed obligation to defend the German minority in Czechoslovakia. Putin has spoken of the need to defend Russian minorities in former Soviet republics. The Baltic states have their own Russian minorities, thus their nervousness.
In response to these events, there have been a variety of unhelpful responses. Among Republicans, there has been a rush to blame President Barack Obama for a policy of weakness, as in Syria. According to this view, Putin knew that Obamaís weakness would allow him to get away with his aggressive actions.
But are these critics suggesting that Obama should have threatened to go to war with Russia over Crimea? Or that he should have intervened militarily in Syria? Putin knew that Obama did not have the power to stop him in Crimea, and Obama knew that military threats would be hollow. Instead, he has promised that Putinís actions will lead to his economic and political isolation, which, in the end, could be expected to cause real harm to Russia.
Another response is to make excuses for Putin. NATO expansion was provocative and damaged Russian dignity. The dismemberment of the Soviet Union wrecked Russian self-esteem. European gestures toward Ukraine were an affront to Russia, which hopes to establish a new Eurasian power center.
Making excuses for Putinís damaging actions is like making excuses for the damaging actions of the United States. Do we blame Saddam Hussein for Americaís blundering invasion of his country? No, we donít because we know that our decisions are our responsibility. The crumbling of the Soviet Union may have harmed Russian pride, but Russians have as much responsibility as anyone to act like grown-ups.
Ultimately, Putin is playing a dangerous game, and the United States cannot escape involvement in the game. Thatís because we are pledged to the stability of Europe, which includes Poland, the Baltic states and other nations previously in the Soviet sphere. Our support for democracy and freedom in Europe has been one of our great accomplishments of the past century. That doesnít mean we ought to rush to war in Ukraine. Rather, it means supporting Ukraine in gaining a degree of stability and prosperity so that it may remain a sovereign nation independent of all its neighbors but friendly with them as well.
There may be reluctance to take action to defend Ukraineís interests because Putin may interpret such actions as provocative and use them as an excuse for further aggressive action. We donít want to be provocative ó and Obamaís cautious imposition of limited sanctions shows he is aware of that danger ó but Putin also needs to know that while there are things he may be able to get away with, there are things that he cannot.
He could get away with invading Ukraine (he has already done so by seizing Crimea) because he knows we wonít go to war with him as a result. But he probably already knows that doing so would give him a headache dwarfing the headache created by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He also probably knows that the West might well go to war with Russia over an invasion of the Baltic states. That is the nightmare scenario that recalls those earlier catastrophes. It is a time for caution, intelligence and strength.
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