Only a United West Can Stop Putin

03/10/2015 12:22 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015
Sasha Mordovets via Getty Images

MADRID -- For some countries, military or political defeat is so intolerable, so humiliating, that they will do whatever it takes to overturn what they view as an unjust international order. One such revisionist power was Egypt, which resolved to undo its 1967 defeat by Israel and regain the Sinai Peninsula. This was ultimately achieved, but only after President Anwar Sadat embraced a strategy of peace by journeying to Jerusalem. The most ominous case, however, was Germany in the 1930s, which systematically shredded the European order that had emerged after World War I.

History suggests that a revisionist power can be disciplined in two ways. It can be opposed with equal fervor, like that which enabled Europe's conservative powers to defeat Napoleon in 1815 and the Allies to defeat Germany in World War II. Or it can reach the limits of its military and economic strength, as in the case of the Soviet Union at the time of its disintegration.

At that point, the country has a choice. It can, as Germany did, opt for reconciliation with the international order. Or it can take the route of President Vladimir Putin's Russia, and develop a new revanchist strategy -- in this case, to overturn the order that emerged from the Soviet Union's Cold War defeat.

Though Putin is undoubtedly the main actor driving this strategy, Ukraine's pursuit of closer ties with the European Union -- a move that Europe and the United States generally welcomed -- was bound to accelerate it. Putin knew that he could take advantage of Ukraine's ethno-religious division (the eastern regions are overwhelmingly Russian Orthodox and loyal to the Kremlin) to undermine these efforts. Europe, it seems, underestimated Russia's determination to uphold what it considers a core interest in Ukraine.

The struggle for influence in Ukraine is a game that Putin cannot afford to lose. For the West, the principle of not redrawing borders by force is a vital political concern -- indeed, it is a pillar of a civilized world order. But both the U.S. and Europe have made it clear that Ukraine's sovereignty is not worth dying for, with the EU disinclined even to follow America's lead in imposing increasingly tough sanctions.

Putin gained the upper hand early in the crisis with the annexation of Crimea. Now, in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, he is shrewdly forcing a divided and risk-averse West to choose between war and accommodation.

While neither option is particularly appealing, the dangers of a war with Russia cannot be overestimated. After all, in such a fight, both sides would possess large nuclear arsenals. That is why, as Sir Adrian Bradshaw, NATO's second in command, recently suggested, war can be contemplated only if Russia invades a NATO state -- a step that Putin is unlikely to take, even as he ramps up his provocations, including cross-border kidnappings. And, even then, there would be reasons for hesitation.

The Western powers' aversion to war raises risks of its own. Russia's blatant disregard for the 1994 Budapest Memorandum -- in which it, the U.S. and the United Kingdom promised that Ukraine's territorial integrity would be respected if it surrendered its own nuclear weapons -- is sending a dangerous message to nuclear states like Iran, North Korea, India and Pakistan. They know that if Ukraine still had its nukes, it would almost certainly still have Crimea.

Nonetheless, the West's views about a war over Ukraine are unlikely to change. And sanctions, despite having crippled Russia's economy, have proved inadequate, thus far, to breaking Putin's will. This leaves only accommodation -- which means effectively granting legitimacy to the Kremlin's claim to authority over Ukraine and, presumably, the rest of its "near abroad."

In this scenario, Russia would avoid attempting to govern Ukraine directly but would insist that Ukraine refrain from joining hostile blocs and alliances. As then President-elect Dmitri Medvedev said in 2008 "no country would be happy about a military bloc to which it did not belong approaching its borders." If the West acquiesces on this critical point, Putin will be eager to end the current war, which Russia's economy is losing badly.

But the Kremlin-driven crisis would not be over. Indeed, Putin's revisionist agenda extends far beyond Ukraine to include the "Finlandization" of other nearby states, including EU members like Hungary and Romania.

If Putin's dangerous brinkmanship is to be stopped, Western leaders will need to find a way to initiate strategic cooperation with Russia. Specifically, they must devise a grand bargain for peace that addresses the fundamental questions relating to global security norms and arms control that have so far impeded such cooperation.

Of course, Russia is no longer a global superpower. But it retains the vocation and characteristics of a major power: a rich culture and history, vast size, formidable nuclear capabilities, strong influence across Eurasia and the capacity to be a spoiler in many conflicts. Any realistic grand bargain would have to account for this.

As for Ukraine, the way forward is difficult to discern -- not least because of the conflicting experiences of buffer states in the past. Kaiser Wilhelm II invaded neutral Belgium to start WWI. Hitler swallowed Austria and Czechoslovakia when it suited him; but Austria's neutrality after 1955 was enough to satisfy the Cold War's two blocs, and now it is part of the EU.

Likewise, since 1967, Jordan has served as an informal buffer state between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Any future Palestinian state would have to assume a similar position, as Israel would never accept its accession to some hostile military alliance.

The Franco-German plan for Ukraine calls for a demilitarized zone separating government and separatist forces, and granting what French President François Hollande defined as "rather strong" autonomy to the Russian-speaking eastern regions. In other words, it fulfills Russia's vision of a federated Ukraine, whereby the Russian-oriented east would have a say in foreign affairs and security matters.

But such a plan cannot be counted on to curb Putin's broader revisionist ambitions. Only a united and determined West can do that.

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