The bare-chested, horse-riding, Siberia fly-fishing, parachute-gliding bully is back. And this time he's after Ukraine. As world leaders are deciding what to do and Western experts are calling for decisive action, Vladimir the Bully has declared that the Russian Federation reserves the right to intervene in any country that it sees fit. On May 9, Victory Day, Putin traveled to Crimea where he celebrated the peninsula's "return to the Motherland." At the same time, deadly fighting continued in Eastern Ukraine where -- as in the case of Crimea -- well-armed, professional soldiers without any national insignia demand independence from Ukraine. Putin seems to be one step ahead of everyone and the debate over the appropriate response may seem confusing to some. So, let's break it down to the basics: playground honor. This time-tested code, which all of us knew as kids, basically comes down to: no tattling, playing by the rules (everyone hates cheaters), sharing, waiting your turn, and not being a wuss. Not everyone may be interested in the historical intricacies of Ukrainian-Russian relations, but we all should understand the sacred do's and don'ts of the playground.
The U.S. and the EU will soon run out of adverbs to describe how "concerned" we are and after Putin's Anschluss of the Crimea and the destabilization of the Donbas region, everyone is asking themselves the same question: "What do we do next?" The answer to that question depends on who you are on the playground and what options you have.
The Kid Getting Beat Up
Ukraine is a brave nation and throughout this crisis (and possibly war) it surely won't want to be called a wuss. The government has already called for the mass mobilization of the Ukrainian army, citizens in Kyiv are declaring that they will defend their country, and the anti-terrorist operation has shown that the government in Kyiv has some control over the country's Eastern regions. Ukrainians feel that they proved to the world that, by taking matters into their own hands during the mass demonstrations on the Euromaidan, Ukraine can have a brighter future. And because nobody likes a tattletale, they may be tempted to stand up to the bully on their own and hope that -- as is usually the case in the schoolyard -- someone will stop the fight before it gets too serious. That is unlikely to happen so it's better to stop the fight before it breaks out. As Zbigniew Brzezinski has argued, Putin can be deterred if Washington makes it clear that if Russia invades Ukraine, the U.S. will supply it with weapons that will allow Ukrainians to defend their homeland.
Ukraine has every right to tattle tale and request weapon supplies because in 1994 it made a deal that if someone bullied it (i.e. invaded its borders) Kyiv could turn for help to the U.S., UK, or...Russian Federation. Today, Moscow is part of the problem, not the solution, but the Budapest Memorandum which guaranteed Ukraine's territorial integrity in exchange for its nuclear arsenal should still be valid. "Any violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing," President Obama said during the Crimean crisis. Regardless of the fact that this violation has already taken place, what if Putin decides to invade other Ukrainian territories and the United States -- under the terms of the Budapest Memorandum -- is obligated to act? It's in the interest of the U.S. and UK not to let it come to that because if it does, and they don't act firmly, this will have grave implications for the West's collective security. If the memorandum that was signed in 1994 is just a paper filled with empty words, what credibility will the U.S. and its partners have in their efforts of nuclear non-proliferation? Their inability to act will completely undermine the value of any international security agreements.
Ukraine played by the rules and acted responsibly by giving up the nuclear weapons that it inherited from the Soviet Union. Now, it's our turn to hold up our end of the bargain.
Like any bully, Putin's Russia will see how far it can go before someone punches it in the nose. On the other hand, it may not have to come to that because most of the time all it takes to scare off a bully is simply to stand up to him. Until that happens, the bully will keep on terrorizing the playground. Reasoning with bullies is out of the question because they are immune to logic since it is incompatible with their desire to project power. Many experts have argued that Putin is digging his own grave, that he overreached, and that Russia will become isolated. All that is true but these arguments fall on deaf ears. When seeing someone get beat up, it won't do any good to say to the playground bully, "Stop doing that or else in the 10 years you'll end up a high-school dropout with a juvie record and nobody will want to talk to you." For the bully, and the victim, all that matters is now.
Bullies are also usually the ones that cheat or don't play by the rules. Putin has proved this by challenging the American-led global order that has given Europe peace following the Cold War. He has openly denounced all rules as the West's machinations to keep Russia down and weak. Not only has he declared that the current international laws are void, Putin announced that Russia will follow its own set of rules. This makes him completely unpredictable and dangerous to his neighbors and to global peace.
The "No-Bullies-Allowed" Club
The members of this club are kids that have the tendency to say, "Listen. We'll give you our milk money, just don't hurt us." Thus, conflict was avoided, but at a price. The European Union, unfortunately, has often acted in this way. It is highly dependent on Russian gas and has historically pursued a "Russia first" policy. The EU's major problem (not one that can't be eventually resolved) is that it lacks clear leadership. Although there are political heavyweights in Europe like Poland's foreign minister Radek Sikorski, who has shown that he can respond quickly to the crisis in Ukraine, the European Union is still not integrated enough to react decisively.
The EU (a Nobel Peace prize laureate) is very good at dialogue, negotiations, and compromise. But Putin is not showing willingness to talk. Although the sophistication of the Kremlin's absurd justifications for invading Ukraine could be compared to the typical grade-school argument "Because I wanna" or "Because Ukraine's stupid," Moscow is insisting on waging a full-scale propaganda war: Russian citizens are on the brink of annihilation at the hands of fascist Ukrainians and President Putin has to save them. The Soviet adage "if you tell a lie over and over it will become true" is in full swing. It is important for Ukraine to avoid being provoked because the experience of Georgia in 2008 has shown that many of the Kremlin's apologists in Brussels (mostly eurosceptics) will say, "Russia's invasion of Ukraine was bad, but the Ukrainian army was first to use force." As silly as this sounds, over time, it blurs the picture and changes the narrative from bully vs. victim to two kids fighting in the park.
The Kid Who Wants To Be Batman
There is usually one kid on the playground that is too tough for the bully to pick on. Others are naturally drawn to him for protection because he stands up for what's right. He prides himself as being like the Dark Crusader -- appreciated by some, misunderstood by many, feared by all. Unfortunately, he doesn't always live up to these virtues. The schoolyard pest isn't fond of him because he poses a challenge, but the bully also knows that he would have not chance whatsoever if it came down to a fight. All our third-grade Batman would have to do is step up and the bully would be screaming "uncle!" before a single punch was thrown. But if he's not willing to act the part, then he should stop talking like Batman and hand over the cape.
If something isn't done now about Putin's aggression in Ukraine, than it will have to be done in five or 10 years -- if at that time anyone still believes in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. (By the way, why is Russia staging military maneuvers in the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad?) Appeasing Putin has not worked so it's time to get tough. The best strategy right now for the U.S. and EU is to follow the advise that Homer Simpson gave to his son about bullies: "So next time this boy thinks your gonna through a punch, you throw a glob of mud in his eye! And then you sock him when he's staggering around blinded! And if you get the chance, get him right in the family jewels."
Since bullies don't follow any rules, why should we?