03/04/2014 09:22 pm ET Updated May 04, 2014

Putin, Ukraine, and the West: What Were We Thinking?

Vladimir Putin has earned his current reputation for doing what he wants and getting away with it. He is after all a former KGB operative, and an authoritarian personality in an authoritarian system in a nation that's known nothing else since Ivan the Terrible in 1530. Whatever we think of him there are pressing questions about what the American national interest is as the wheels come off another of the survivor states of the Soviet Union.

The obvious one is the most important: Sovereign borders are not to be changed by military force, especially when the given reason is protection of ethnic minorities. Once the world goes down that path, chaos rules. It was the excuse Hitler gave, it resonates across the colonial borders of Africa, and can be found in China, India, Russia itself, the list goes on. Putin's invasion may have its own domestic logic but it unleashes irredentist forces that could consume us all.

On the other hand, what did the geniuses in the European Union think would happen as they probed for ways to spin the Ukraine out of the Russian orbit? A Ukraine aligned with the economic and political forces of Europe is a good thing in the long run, for Ukrainians particularly. But it's a real poke in the eye to Russia. What did we think would happen -- Putin would stand aside? And no one in the EU seemed to realize that once you stick your nose in, you own the problem. And as awful as Yanukovich was, he was the elected president, and the West is usually unhappy with the forceful removal of elected governments. So now we have a state collapsing along ethnic lines, bankrupt and dependent on Western cash, and a military move by Russia that exposes the unwillingness of the West to do much more than harumph and cancel meetings.

Most of the right-wing critique of Obama's foreign policy is, well, it's not just wrong, it's bogus. But in Ukraine, what was he thinking? That we could poke at a border state and Russia would do nothing? This is a mess that looks like the disastrous neo-con interventions of the Bush years, only they were willing to go to war and Obama is not. The lesson of Iraq is not just don't send troops, it's be realistic about what our enemies are likely to do, good or bad.

In retrospect it's sort of obvious that Putin would not let Western interference in Ukraine go without a KGB-type response. No Russian leader could sit by and let it happen, any more than the U.S. could do nothing if Russia became active in Canadian separatist politics. And a small but disturbing part of what's going on in Ukraine is a resurgence of hard, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic forces, the heirs of the Ukrainian efforts in support of Hitler. Don't underestimate the strength of Russian memories of World War II.

There's no military solution; a political solution would be a gift from Putin; Russian public opinion, to the extent it is knowable, is behind him. The American response is going to have to go beyond Obama's neo-neo-con sticking his finger in the eye of a ruthless Russian regime. The Right is going to have to come up with a policy that's suitably tough without going to war. The Left is going to have to learn the difference between a popular democratic movement overthrowing a tyrant and an endless ethnic and ideological dispute unleashing forces we can't control. In the meantime, Putin is ascendant and instability reigns.