Before his annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin exercised much of his geopolitical influence through a menacing sort of strategic ambiguity. He could use Russian gas as a weapon one moment, then play geopolitical partner and peacemaker the next.
But his seizure of Ukraine has removed all ambiguity. He wants everything that is, was or could be Russian. And we know this because he told us so, in a remarkable and frightening speech that proudly displayed all his previously hidden cards.
Oh Vladimir, we barely knew ye. We thought you were a cold and calculating tyrant, an opportunist who determined your means and ends through a careful evaluation of benefits and costs.
Now we know you are a smoldering volcano of Russian nationalist passions -- rational and patient in achieving your ends, perhaps, but deeply emotional, and even hysterical, in determining what those ends should be. And those passions can suddenly erupt.
Putin's speech to State Duma deputies and Federation Council members was both a settling of scores and a declaration of intent. The enemies called out included Bolsheviks, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, Westerners, American "exceptionalists," Bandera -- supporters and domestic "national traitors" -- all of whom are busily scheming to undermine Russian national greatness.
And behind these enemies, Putin sees dark hints of international conspiracy embodied by a mysterious, vaguely Western "they" who engineered the Orange and Rose Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, provoked Arab Spring chaos and most recently provided Kiev with "an organized and well-equipped army of militants."
In a sense, he gives his nebulous adversaries too much credit. He projects upon them his own bitter cynicism and his brazen and hypocritical methods.
More ominous, however, was Putin's declaration of intent -- to fulfill "the aspiration of the Russians, of historical Russia, to restore unity." He referred to Kiev as the "mother of Russian cities" and to "events" in the Ukrainian cities of Donetsk and Kharkov. He even blurred the lines between invader and seducer with a truly creepy geopolitical come-on. Speaking directly to Ukrainians, he said "we cannot live without each other." "Just let me liberate cha," he seemed to intone like Robin Thicke.
With all the persuasiveness of a deaf brute mumbling to himself, he even tried to convince Ukrainians that losing Crimea was good for them. After all, if Russia had not annexed Ukraine, "we [the Russians and Ukrainians] could lose Crimea completely, and that could happen in the near historical perspective." Lose it? To whom? The idea is juvenile.
And it's a satire worthy of Juvenal, because his willful disregard of opposing perspectives makes a mockery of open discourse. Putin's head is like a helmet. He cannot conceive that his own angry denunciations apply as much to himself as to anyone else. The echo chamber of Russian TV magnifies the myopia at the top. The ridiculous lies peddled by Putin's state-sponsored media aren't intended to convince anyone outside the Russian government bubble. They are intended to impose solidarity and discipline inside the bubble. It's like Fox News with Spetsnaz units.
The fertile grounds of Putin's fantasies do contain seeds of fact. Much of eastern Ukraine is Russian and even pro-Russia. The West hasn't done enough to help post-Gaddafi Libya. Yes, perhaps the Iraq War was a bad idea. Maybe the Bush White House shouldn't have encouraged Georgia and Ukraine down the road of Euro-Atlantic integration so quickly. These all are fair points, but in Putin's World, they become a license to do what he wants and damning demonstrations of an enemy master plan.
If only we had one.
This is Europe's neighborhood and Europeans need a real plan. They only have paper plans. Engagement plans. Action plans. Neighborhood plans. But Putin has a military plan that's hard as rock and in this crisis, rock beats paper.
European leaders seem stunned that they are confronted with a determined adversary that has a strategy and a military plan. With a few praiseworthy exceptions, their plaintive calls for reduced tensions have conveyed weakness and even invited ridicule. Much-trumpeted sanctions will barely touch Putin's inner circle. In fact, they could show Putin that he can easily manage the consequences whatever he chooses to do.
This idea must be stressed. Dictators rarely stop while they're ahead. In fact, European ambivalence, confusion and division could convince Putin that this is exactly the time when he must seize all the Ukrainian land he can. If Putin does go further than he has in the Crimea, Europeans and Americans will have to consider to what extent their lack of firm action enabled his firm actions.
For all our fumbling, we do have two important things on our side.
First, we have solidarity. Putin's actions have brought Russians together behind him. They've also brought Westerners together in front of him while irrevocably alienating the Ukrainians who live beside him.
Second, we now have clarity. We're dealing someone who is willing to disrupt the status quo. As such, he's more of an adversary than a partner.
So where do we go from here?
Europeans have to decide whether they want Ukraine to be part of Europe or not. This must be a European and not an American decision because Europe will have to pony up a lot of the economic help that Ukraine desperately needs and Ukraine's aspirations lie with Europe.
My fear is that Europeans will do just enough to convince themselves they have done something, but not enough to make a difference. My hope is that they will give Ukrainians enough assistance to stabilize their country and a simple, achievable and short-term path to greater European integration.
Above all, they must make clear to Putin that the rest of the continent is not to be tampered with. And they must be clear with themselves that we are all witnessing a paradigm shift in international relations.
I admire much about Europe. This continent's aspirations for international peace, law and prosperity remain a model for the world. But Putin's got his own model. I call it the Say Hello To My Little Friend theory of international relations. It's old school to be sure, but as effective and destabilizing as ever.
There was a time for words, for declarations and for dialogue -- in short, a time for liberal internationalism and pan-European dreams. In those great years -- from the 1990s to the start of the recent financial crisis -- peace, security and stability spread across Europe. But that time is past. Now is the time for Europeans to use whatever means they must to protect what they have. And right now, Europeans aren't projecting security. They're projecting a virtuous naiveté that actually invites aggression.