04/22/2014 04:45 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2014

Our Unpredictable 'Partner for Peace'

In 1994, at the initiative of the U.S., the Partnership for Peace (PfP) was created, with the aim of furthering trust bilaterally between NATO and individual countries of Europe and the former Soviet Union. Twenty-two countries joined, including Russia, and of these, 12 eventually became members of NATO (but not including Russia). As far as the latter was concerned, it was in U.S. eyes a way of associating Russia with NATO without it becoming a full member of the club. Now, as far as Russia is concerned, the PfP is a dead letter, and Russian officers have been invited to leave NATO Headquarters.

The Empire Strikes Back

Taking a leaf from Hitler's playbook of the late 1930s (Austria, Sudetenland, Memel), Vladimir Putin has now declared himself the protector of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers no matter where they are. His seizure and annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula disregarded international law and the inviolability of nation-states and raised the specter of a resurrection of the former Soviet empire in its dimensions though not its ideology. In his four-hour press conference of April 17, Putin noted that the upper house of the Russian Parliament had given him the authorization to use force in Ukraine, but he "hoped" not to have to do so.

The writer Vladimir Sorokin, now living in Moscow, had this to say about Putin's Russia in the May 8 issue of The New York Review of Books:

"With a monarchical structure such as this, the country automatically becomes hostage to the psychosomatic quirks of its leader...Unpredictability has always been Russia's calling card, but since the Ukrainian events, it has grown to unprecedented levels..."

It could be argued that Putin is more unpredictable than the leaders of Soviet times, with the possible exception of Nikita Khrushchev and his mad missile adventure in Cuba. But Khrushchev also had the image of a buffoon, banging his shoe against the desk in the UN, and this is not at all the image of Putin.

"Un Grand Peuple" ("A Great People")

These were the words Charles de Gaulle uttered as he surveyed the Stalingrad battlefield on an escorted tour by the Russians in December 1944. Then, in an aside to his aide and interpreter, Jean Laloy, he added, "I am referring to the Germans." This was by way of saying that the Germans had accomplished a remarkable feat in penetrating this far into Russia.

Today, Germany is the leading country in Europe and could, if it were so inclined, spearhead a European push-back against Putin's neo-imperialism. But, as the former U.S. ambassador to Germany, John Kornblum, once remarked to me, "Germany is out of the danger business." And German firms, as well as Italian and British firms, have taken the lead in urging caution as regards further sanctions against Russia. Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the German Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, argued in the Financial Times in March that the only people who seemed not to realize that Germany was at the center of the Ukraine crisis were "the Germans themselves" (The New York Times, April 19).

Obama Strong

With Europe showing signs of vacillation, Barack Obama's only recourse is to take a strong stand against the unpredictable and therefore dangerous Vladimir Putin. Obama's ingenious way of getting out of what would have been a military attack against a fourth Muslim country (by referring the Syrian problem to the Congress) unfortunately had a downside: Abetted by a barrage of hostile Republican propaganda, it made the president look weak.