In Ukraine, U.S. Is Forfeiting New Cold War

03/02/2015 01:05 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2015

No, the Soviet Union isn't coming back. However, the Russian Federation is reasserting itself and a new Cold War has already opened. The first front in this war is Ukraine. How the United States responds now will influence how Russia acts and how Europe evolves for the rest of this century. Punishing Russia economically is poor consolation if we still allow Ukraine to collapse financially and militarily.

Nearly a year since Russia invaded Crimea, only half the $118 million Washington approved has even reached Ukraine. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Ukraine earlier this month, he pledged an additional $16 million in non-lethal assistance. With the latest ceasefire, the International Monetary Fund has unlocked $17.5 billion in monetary assistance -- but even that amount is threatened by ongoing hostilities. And it won't deter Russia from turning its sights on other countries in the region.

The European Union is outspending the United States, deploying military advisers, and leading repeated efforts at a ceasefire and some peace deal -- negotiations that bear little promise, because Russian President Vladimir Putin didn't invade Ukraine in order to achieve peace. As in the old Cold War, much of the onus falls on the United States, because it possesses the overwhelming military and economic strength, and also Americans don't live in Russia's shadow, relying heavily on its natural gas and its food exports.

Yes, due to aggression against Ukraine, Russia's economy is imploding, investors are pulling out, and the ruble has lost nearly half its value in the past year. But Ukraine's economy is even worse off, not as a result of its own misdeeds, but purely due to Russia's invasion and intimidation; shooting down the Malaysian airliner has actually worked out very well for Moscow, as no one now dares overfly Ukraine.

Failing to deliver even on modest commitments of non-lethal aid, not to mention general assistance or "lethal" military aid, has implications far beyond the fate of Ukraine. Despite strong rhetoric and sanctions against Russia, and amid training and mobilization of NATO forces around the region including the Baltic States, Washington has yet to provide any significant assistance to Ukraine.

Ukrainians are willing to fight to keep Russia from annexing their territory. Helping their fight will likely escalate the confrontation and sharply increase Ukraine's casualties. President Putin may never back off from bullying and occupying his neighbor. But having received promises from the West over the years, and for taking the risks of asking to join us, Ukrainians deserve support in their fight.

Morally, America should be backing Ukraine in deed and not just in word. Strategically, failing to do so tells Russia that U.S. threats and recriminations mean little beyond economic hardship. And Russia has survived much worse in living memory. Should Putin decide to annex a few Baltic islands, or expand the borders of Kaliningrad (the Russian enclave between Latvia and Lithuania), it's possible NATO would use all necessary measures to defeat him. But so far, all the West has done is allow him to enter and annex Crimea, and to occupy Eastern Ukraine, with no military response.

As Russian mercenaries overrun regions of Ukraine, there has been little recourse to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Ukraine abandoned its nuclear arsenal in exchange for Russian, U.S. and British security guarantees. If Washington will not fulfill that commitment, why should Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians believe NATO will put it all on the line for them? Why should Putin?

Ceasefires are pointless in Ukraine, because Putin wants anything but. He didn't choose to violate Ukraine's borders in order to reduce hostilities. He struck in order to return Ukraine under Russia's yoke. The more Ukrainian cities are decimated and civilians killed, the more Ukrainian soldiers are captured and humiliated, the better for Putin politically.

If this is the start of a new Cold War, then waiting for Putin to wear himself out is no strategy. The relatively stable balance of power held in post-war Europe until the Soviet collapse, but the late-1940s were marked by Soviet opportunism and U.S. military response, notably in Greece. During the rest of the Cold War, America had troops and nuclear weapons based in Western Europe, and the historic Berlin airlift defied Moscow's intention of cutting of West Berlin. And actual hostilities across Europe were very limited.

Without the specter of nuclear brinkmanship and capitalist-communist rivalry, this new "cold war" will definitely be lower grade than the original. But conventional forces and nationalist ethos are hardly benign.

Putin needs to bring Ukraine low for several reasons. First, he won't abide Russia's historical and strategic kin becoming the West's client. Second, he won't agree to concede Russian economic privileges there, in perpetuity. Third, he can't afford for Russians to see a genuinely democratic and Western-integrated Soviet successor state -- much like their own -- providing prosperity and security to its people, lest Russians start thinking Ukraine's mini-revolution was a good idea. Fourth, Putin sends a message to the region and world, that Russia will not be trifled with, and that veiled Russian threats are backed by unambiguous Russian guns; don't mess with Russia.

Putin is sending a message to the world about the arbitrariness of national sovereignty and free markets, and Washington is responding with a message of powerlessness and empty rhetoric. The West will not bring Russia to its knees within any meaningful timeframe, nor can we really afford to. Nor do we need to: Russia really is too big to fail, and so is Western investment in its future.

There's still time to avoid cycles of confrontation with the Russian Federation, and reasonable chance for resumed economic and cultural cooperation, but only if the United States backs up its own red lines. At the very least, Washington needs to show it's committed to upholding European sovereignty and free markets where it can -- at any cost. If it won't, then the cost ends up being much higher, for everyone.