03/11/2014 08:30 pm ET Updated May 11, 2014

Real-World Lessons From the Crimean Crisis

The late spy-thriller novelist and military historian Tom Clancy's posthumous novel Command Authority, published in December of last year, revolves around an ex-spy strongman president of Russia who gambles that he can make an armed incursion into Ukraine while NATO and the world watch powerlessly as he flexes his military might with impunity. The novel's characters, as with most works of fiction, are based on real situations, but I can't decide if his story is eerily prescient or just the playing out of a predictable scenario that was well understood in the policy and military arena. Regardless, the crisis unfolding in the Eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula is very real, revealing once more that the global governance system is ill-equipped to effectively handle real-world power dynamics, in this case Putin's realpolitik maneuvering.

After now-exiled Ukrainian President Yanukovych abandoned a trade agreement with the EU, over 100,000 people flooded Kiev's Independence Square in protest. They could not have picked a more aptly named site to stage their rejection of a de facto reinstatement of the Soviet-era client-state relationship with Moscow by replacing the EU agreement with Russian credit financing and deeply discounted energy, among other things. It is suspected that Russian intelligence services, in an attempt to fracture a rapidly organizing opposition, leaked an intercepted communication between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt in which they discussed behind-the-scenes political maneuvering; to add insult to injury, the conversation culminated with Nuland cursing at the EU. The protests intensified, resulting in the tragic loss of civilian lives at the hands of police forces, which ultimately drove Yanukovych to abandon the presidency and vanish into the night. In the days that followed, masked soldiers in unmarked uniforms appeared throughout Crimea, occupying government buildings and confining the Ukrainian armed forces to their bases. The dreaded Russian occupation took place in the blink of an eye, without a single shot fired.

Russian President Putin has defended his (admittedly masterfully executed) combat-free occupation of Crimea as the right of the Russian Federation to protect ethnic Russians and citizens anywhere. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton likened the tactics to those employed by Hitler in the '30s to invade Austria and Czechoslovakia. The UN has denounced the warrantless territorial invasion and blatant violation of international law, just like they did with Assad's violation of human rights in Syria, without being able to produce a single binding resolution due to Russia's veto power in the Security Council.

The EU also condemned the incursion, but both Brussels and the individual governments of the union recognize that they must acquiesce to Russia's actions or risk an economic calamity by aggravating relations with the supplier of the lion's share of Europe's energy. Finally, U.S. President Obama has employed diplomatic and economic measures as a response, but he has little leverage, since he lacks the political willingness, economic stability, or public support to pursue any military option. Perhaps most importantly, the security assurances given to Ukraine by Russia, the UK and the U.S. under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in exchange for the dismantling of its post-Cold War inheritance that represented the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world have effectively disintegrated. Neither the U.S. nor the UK nor Russia has held up its commitment: Russia violated Ukraine's territorial integrity, and the others failed to protect it.

Although diplomacy and international law have failed, this is an opportunity to revise some harsh lessons in realpolitik. Having given up its nukes, and seeing security guarantees evaporate, Ukraine is now effectively defenseless and at the mercy of Putin's economic, military, and energetic lockdown; at this point there is a real likelihood that it might loose Crimea and even parts of Eastern Ukraine. I don't advocate armaments, but the Ukrainian and global community's impotence to release Russia's grip highlights the practical value of nuclear energy and weapon-based deterrence. This lesson is not lost to foreign policy and military strategists around the world.

This twinned relationship between the virtually limitless energy and the potential for mass extinction of life on Earth is a powerful sword, even if it's double-edged. Energy supply is one of the most important determinants of global power dynamics; it's a soft weapon as well, but a weapon nonetheless. The threat of fuel shocks is sending ripples through Europe's economic plans, which will lead them to reconsider plans to divest from nuclear energy. Hopefully this will renew interest in safer nuclear energy.

However, the most dangerous aspect of this crisis is that Putin's realpolitik approach exposes, once again, the failure of the international community and global governance structures to solve armed conflicts. Countries like North Korea will doubtlessly consider their options for security: nuclear deterrence or international "assurances" when faced with calls for disarmament.

In fact, countries are always learning and improving these realpolitik stratagems. Russia improved on the tactics employed to invade Georgia, and ironically, even Iran has borrowed a page from the Israeli clandestine nuclear weapons development playbook, allaying international security bodies through delay and misdirection, but ultimately achieving their goals. Alas, President Putin's moves might endanger much more than Crimea's standing as a Ukrainian territory by inadvertently stoking the fires of nuclear arms races.