03/03/2014 04:54 pm ET Updated May 03, 2014

What's Wrong With Russia?

Nothing, according to a realist view of international relations. Russia is acting like a traditional predatory nation-state. It's trying to increase its wealth, expand its influence and maximize its power.

The problem is that we seem surprised.

Twenty-five years have passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and 23 since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The great victory of this era was the creation of a peaceful geopolitical space including central and eastern Europe and the Baltics that was incorporated into the Western sphere of democratic modernity.

The great tragedy is that Russia was not. The aid we offered, while significant, was not large enough or coordinated enough to make a real difference and was often regarded as humiliating. Western diplomats would strenuously object that they tried to engage Russia with assistance, partnerships and action plans. But whatever our intentions, our policies didn't work.

Now Russia's back, strengthened by the temporary intoxicant of fossil fuel money. And it has decided to "claw back" some of the regional power it once wielded.

The conflict in Georgia was the first hard example. Now we have Russian troops taking over Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine may be next. These interventions have made surrounding countries with large Russian populations very nervous.

So what should the West do?

First, we have to understand the threat.

Putin's Russia is a mess. It's utterly corrupt. It represses any vigorous opposition and kills inconvenient journalists. Some, including US diplomats, have referred to the country as a mafia state.

All that is true, but for the moment, it's also irrelevant.

Like the honey badger, Putin don't care. He's an autocrat and a nationalist. He's not interested in partnering with our Western community of nations and values and we need to stop pretending he is. He wants to expand his power, his wealth and his country's regional influence. And a majority of Russians approve.

At the same time, Russia's oil and gas money depends upon European clients and world markets that the West helps maintain.

So while he's a nationalist, he's more an opportunist than an ideologue and his goals are likely to be limited. He's not trying to take over Europe. He wants Crimea and perhaps parts of eastern Ukraine that have concentrations of Russian speakers. In my view, it's unlikely that he would risk a costly war and possible insurgency by venturing into western Ukraine.

That said, Putin's Russia does pose a tactical threat to Western interests and to democratic values. In geopolitics, if someone pushes you, you have to push back. So how does the West push?

And that brings me to a second point. Western countries must decide that we want to decide to do something.

This isn't flippant. It's fundamental. So far, the collective US and EU response to events is not to project power but the illusion of purpose. We have decided to be indecisive. We act as if words are weapons, but sometimes the sword really is mightier than the tweet.

How many billions in aid for Kiev have we pledged? How many thousands of observers or troops? What have we threatened to take away that means something to Putin? Time is money and money is influence. Precious seconds are drifting by and we have offered little, because, deep down, we're not sure how much we care.

If we don't care, fine. We'll let Putin sorts out events according to his liking. That's basically what we're doing now, just without all the Very Stern Language and Hans Blix-like angry letters.

But let's assume for a moment that we do care and we're prepared to do something about it.

The US is usually up for doing something. We're like the guy at the bar at 2 AM, always ready to drop one more tequila bomb. And if the European Union is tired and wants to go home, we just might say something impolite.

The problem, if course, is that Europeans can't go home. They are home and the US needs Europe not just to be a partner in this region, but the leader. This is Europe's neighborhood and they need to take charge.

But looking at Catherine Ashton's most recent statement, one gets the impression that for Europe, this crisis still feels far away. It's not. It's on the borders of four current EU members.

Simply put, Europe and the US must act together to do now for Ukraine what we did not do for Russia in the 1990s.

That means putting lots of cash on the table for Kiev. It means incorporating into the West what's left of Ukraine after this crisis has passed. It means holding the line against Putin's expanding influence and waiting him out to see if his successor is more amenable to our interests and our values.

It also means hitting a kleptocracy where it hurts by finding ways to cut off some of that enabling oil and gas money. Russia is, after all, a part of the world economic system in a way that the Soviet Union was not. In a confrontation like this, that's not a strength but a vulnerability.

It may also mean beefing up our forces in nearby countries to send a clear message that what's possible for Putin in Georgia and Crimea will not be possible elsewhere. That, in turn, would entail reversing the dramatic slide in European defence spending.

As I write this, Ukraine's military is on high alert and the Russian military has started giving out ultimatums. This is old-school escalation, 19th-century style, and it may well have an old-school ending.

But the West seems trapped in the "new-school" language of dialogue and international law. We've got soft-power ideas coming out of our mouths while hard power is moving events on the ground.

To borrow a phrase from Barbara Tuchman, it's like Europe is looking in a distant mirror, staring at itself as it was before European integration began. And confronted by the specter of its former self, Europe seems paralyzed.

It's time for Europe to break out of its paralysis. The world is moving and Europeans are standing still.