As a new cycle of tensions ramp up in Ukraine, there are two significant facts to keep in mind:
n Russia has dominated Ukraine for centuries;
n The rest of Europe has been willing to live with that.
Those are not pleasant geopolitical facts for the Kiev liberals who dream of being part of the European Union, but the reality is that nobody in the West is willing to go to war for them, and they can’t hold off the Russians on their own.
Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, is probably willing to go to war for Ukraine. He holds the misguided dream that he can reassemble the old Soviet empire, complete with a satellite buffer zone; Ukraine is, in terms of Russia’s historic view of its strategic security, the most essential piece of that puzzle.
Putin is more motivated in this crisis, in short, than Europe is.
But even if he wins this duel, there will be a price. His finance minister, Anton Siluanov, warned Tuesday that the Russian economy, stung by the limited sanctions imposed over Putin’s Crimean adventure, is slipping into recession. Putin earlier demanded that the European Union divert its planned financial assistance to Kiev to Moscow and hinted that he might slow the flow of oil and gas from Russia to the West.
Such blackmail will, in the long run, motivate Europe to find other energy sources (such as the shale-oil drilling that has boomed in the United States) — and, more emphatically, motivate Europe to take seriously once again the notion that it must guard itself militarily from the Russian bear.
Ukraine, after all, is only part of Putin’s New Soviet vision. The Baltic states, like Ukraine, were once part of the Soviet Union. Unlike Ukraine, they are now members of NATO. Poland, Hungary and other Eastern European nations that were once on Moscow’s side of the Iron Curtain are also in NATO.
Putin’s vision demands that Russia dominate those countries as well. If NATO has any meaning at this point, it cannot allow that to happen.
It is clear the West will not draw its line at Ukraine. But it would do well to make Putin’s Ukrainian adventure hurt enough that he doesn’t try the same elsewhere.