Here are the real lessons of the crisis in Ukraine: Russia is not a great power, and Vladimir Putin is hardly the master grand strategist that many American Cold Warriors have been weirdly eager to believe.
Or these should be the lessons that Western leaders take away and broadcast to the world. I've been disturbed by the Obama administration's rhetorical response these past few days — the drumbeat that Putin is on “the wrong side of history” and that his actions will bear “costs” and “consequences” — because it's the sort of rhetoric that can't be meaningfully translated into action. History is not some Hegelian juggernaut arcing toward destiny, and to believe otherwise is to overestimate the force of righteous words and a little nudging. (Syrian President Bashar Assad was said to be on the wrong side of history, yet somehow he's still around.) As for that nudging, there are no consequences — none that Obama or European leaders could credibly threaten — that would keep Putin (or any other Russian leader) from doing whatever it took to hang on to Ukraine.
None of this is to say that we should simply shrug at Putin's aggression. But no one should suffer any illusions about the effect that our costs and consequences will produce. Which leads to the big questions: What are we aiming for? How do we want this crisis to be settled? What can we do to get there?
The primary goal is, or should be, to make things right in Ukraine: to stabilize its economy, assure its territorial integrity, and ensure free and fair elections in May. A subset of this goal is to do all this, if possible, with Russia's cooperation.
Two things have to be kept in mind. First, for any Russian leader in history, Ukraine is vital: as a leading market, supplier, and buffer to Western encroachment. Second, Putin really views the protests in Ukraine as the product of a Western plot to wrest the country away from Russia's orbit. He's wrong, but everything in his background leads him to see conspiracies, and he would have found it “no coincidence, comrades,” that the initial demonstrators in Kiev were protesting then-President Viktor Yanukovych's retreat from a closer relationship with the European Union.
Secretary of State John Kerry sent the right signals in Tuesday's press conference in Kiev. “We're not seeking confrontation,” he said. The United States “would prefer to see this de-escalated, managed through international institutions.” He said he came to Kiev to proclaim Americans' solidarity with the Ukrainian people in their battle for rights and freedom. But he also affirmed Russia's vital interests in Ukraine — its military base, “strong ties,” and “long history” — and recognized that there will always be strong relations between the two countries.
“But,” Kerry added, Ukraine's relations with Russia “should not be at the expense of having a relation with the rest of the world.” This is where the task turns delicate: How to open Ukraine to the rest of the world — a process that was underway until Yanukovych yanked it to a halt — while convincing Putin that the trend poses no threat to Russian interests?
The answer — maybe the only answer, the only way out of this crisis — lies in the upcoming elections. Let the Ukrainian people decide which way they want to go. Russia-leaning candidates will run, maybe one of them will even win. Certainly there's no guarantee that the winner — or a majority of the Ukrainian people — will want to embrace the West exclusively.
A case can be made that Putin committed a huge strategic blunder in this crisis. Had he simply stood by and waited for the elections — had he used Ukrainian proxies to clamp down on the more militant protesters rather than send black-masked storm troopers to occupy the Crimean peninsula — he probably would have won in the end. The Western nations, assured of the allegiances to democratic forms, would have backed away. Ukraine would still need Russian aid and trade to survive. Even with some movement by Ukraine toward the EU, Moscow would retain its dominance.
But now the West is exercised, and likely to keep watch on Ukraine for longer than usual. Many of Russia's supporters in Ukraine now view their protector with suspicion and fear; the other members in Putin's great dream of a “Eurasian Economic Union” — including Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (the central members of the former Soviet Union) — might also be leery of what a more formal alliance with Moscow might bring.
The stress is beginning to show. At his own press conference Tuesday, Putin — who usually appears cool and confident in such forums — rambled, ranted and indulged much more openly in dark fantasies about foreign plots. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, after talking on the phone with Putin on Sunday, that he seemed to be “in another world.”
It's dangerous when leaders who spark armed crises start turning a little bit crazy — all the more reason for President Obama and other Western leaders to step up their engagement in behind-the-scenes reassurances.
But if this doesn't work, if Putin doesn't go along with this “de-escalation,” if he continues to see any moves toward a settlement as the advancement of a Western assault, then what? Kerry said the West would have “no choice but to expand on the steps we've taken in recent days in order to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically.”
What this would mean precisely, Kerry didn't make clear. But I would propose focusing on the word “isolate” — and, to the extent possible, add the word “ignore.”
Just as Putin is not as much in command as many Western hawks suppose, Russia is not as great a power as Putin himself likes to project. It's at best a regional power, with no global reach. Even his incursion into Crimea is hardly an imperial gesture. Leonid Brezhnev sent five tank divisions into Czechoslovakia. (Now that was aggression!) U.S. military advisers estimate that the Russian army could invade eastern Ukraine if Putin so ordered, but they say it's much less clear how long they could sustain an occupation, especially with even sporadic insurgent resistance.
Obama's policy of “resetting” relations with Russia rested on two premises. First, the United States and Russia had a lot of common interests, so it would be good to solve problems and meet challenges together. Second, Putin's predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, seemed to be a more willing partner. They did accomplish a fair amount for a while. But now it's not working much at all. Russia plays a limited role, at best, in the various hot spots the United States is facing. Yes, it's helping to rid Syria of chemical weapons, but that's very much in Russia's interest; Putin would be doing that regardless of broader relations. Russia also helped carve the initial P5+1 talks to limit Iran's nuclear program, but Iran's main motive in continuing the talks is access to American and European economies, not Russia's.
So, given that Russia isn't helping out much in the world anyway, the best way to impose “costs” and “consequences” on Putin's behavior is to ignore him.
Already, plans for a G-8 conference in Sochi are on hold. Scrap the session altogether. Maybe even hold a G-7 conference (perhaps under a different name) someplace else. (The G-7 nations have already issued a condemnation of Russia's aggression.) Other possibilities: keep Russia out of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; pull out all economic and technical advisers from Russia; encourage private investors to do the same (the uncertainty of Russia's market, as a result of the aggression, is already having this effect to some extent); suspend all bilateral talks about ... well, everything; suspend travel visas to the West for select Russian officials (this is a more delicate matter, but American and EU officials are drawing up lists).
All of this should take place if Russia doesn't cooperate on Ukraine's steps toward quasi-democratic rule. Ukraine is the main thing. It's stupid to do nothing but poke needles in Putin's ribs for international theater. There should be carrots and sticks in this enterprise, and if the carrots work, throw away the sticks.
The sticks I've outlined are a bigger deal than they might seem. Putin's main interest, after all, is to project an image of Russia as a great and essential global power. That's what the Sochi Olympics were all about. He spent $50 billion on that PR spectacle — an investment thoroughly nullified by his maladroit move on Crimea: another sign that Putin is not as brilliant as the Cold Warriors think.
Fred Kaplan is the author of “The Insurgents” and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.