For now, at least, the threat that Russia will invade eastern Ukraine appears to be easing, replaced by a diplomatic offensive aimed at attaining Russian dominance by other means.
The tactical shift began Friday with a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to U.S. President Barack Obama, followed by weekend negotiations. Then Monday, Putin announced that one battalion (about one per cent of the potential invasion force) would be pulled back, and diplomats signalled a softening of opposition to Ukrainian elections set for May.
It is a deft manoeuver on Putin’s part. By throttling down, he reduces the sense of alarm — and rare Western unity — set off by his lightning seizure of Crimea, and with it, the threat of sanctions. The aggressor now casts himself as peacemaker.
But no one should be fooled. Putin has worked this script before — in 2008 when he poured Russian troops into two renegade provinces of Georgia, which, like Ukraine, was resisting Russian control, and managed to avoid any Western response.
The West cannot afford to be complacent again, nor can it pretend this is just another isolated crisis to be briefly managed and then forgotten. The truth, hard as it is for Western leaders to accept, is that the post-Cold War strategy of trying to entice Russia toward the West is in tatters, or at least destined for cold storage until a post-Putin regime emerges. In its place must be a new strategy that sees Putin for what he is and counters his threat.
Having consolidated power and crushed dissent at home, Putin is turning outward, using anti-Western vitriol to appeal to wounded Russian pride and justify his campaign to reclaim remnants of the Soviet Union, either by conquest or intimidation.
The Georgian provinces and Crimea were appetizers. Ukraine — bigger, wealthier and essential to Putin’s goals — is the main course. But it is not his last meal.
Putin’s holy grail is to break the unity — economic, political and military — of the West and particularly Europe, which is precisely why the U.S. and its allies need to respond proactively, beginning this week at meetings of NATO and leading economic powers.
NATO, which has atrophied as it groped for a mission after the collapse of the Soviet Union, now has one. It’s the old one: self-defence. It should bulk up and redeploy forces from the old front in Germany to the new fronts in former Soviet states nearer Russia. Even more important, leaders should develop an explicit long-term policy aimed at freeing Europe from its dependency on Russian energy.
As for Ukraine, it needn’t be allied to the West. But the Russian president’s demand that its provinces effectively have their own foreign and economic policies, while the Kiev government is constitutionally restrained from joining the West, is unacceptable.
The danger of a harder line with Russia, of course, is that it provokes military confrontation or cuts off cooperation on common interests, such as steering Iran away from nuclear weapons.
But Putin has left the West little choice. He is betting that the Western alliance is too soft and splintered to take him on. Instead, the allies need to rediscover their Cold War spine.