VIENNA – The West is now living in Putin’s world. It is there not because Putin is right, or even because he is stronger, but because he is taking the initiative. Putin is “wild” while the West is “wary.” While European and American leaders recognize that the world order is undergoing a dramatic change, they cannot quite grasp it. They remain overwhelmed by Putin’s transformation from CEO of Russia, Inc., into an ideology-fueled national leader who will stop at nothing to restore his country’s influence.
International politics may be founded on treaties, but it functions on the basis of rational expectations. If those expectations turn out to be wrong, the prevailing international order collapses. That is precisely what has happened in the course of the Ukrainian crisis.
Just a few months ago, most Western politicians were convinced that in an interdependent world revisionism is too costly and that despite Putin’s determination to defend Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet space, he would not resort to military force to do so. It is now clear that they were sorely mistaken.
Then, after Russian troops occupied Crimea, international observers largely assumed that the Kremlin would support its secession from Ukraine but would stop short of making it part of the Russian Federation. That belief, too, proved to be entirely wrong.
At this point, the West has no idea what Russia is willing to do, but Russia knows exactly what the West will – and, more important, will not – do. This has created a dangerous asymmetry.
For example, when Moldova requests membership in the European Union, Russia may move to annex its breakaway region of Transnistria, where Russian troops have been stationed for two decades. And Moldova now knows that, should that happen, the West will not intervene militarily to protect its sovereignty.
When it comes to Ukraine, Russia has made it clear that it hopes to obstruct the May presidential election, which Western leaders hope will cement change in Ukraine, while turning the country’s constitutional negotiations into the opening act in the establishment of a new European order.
Russia envisions Ukraine becoming something akin to Bosnia – a radically federalized country comprising political units that each adhere to their own economic, cultural, and geopolitical preferences. In other words, while Ukraine’s territorial integrity would technically be preserved, the eastern part of the country would have closer ties with Russia than with the rest of Ukraine – similar to the relationship between Bosnia’s Republika Srpska and Serbia.
This creates a dilemma for Europe. While radical federalization could allow Ukraine to remain intact through the current crisis, it would most likely doom the country to disintegration and failure in the longer term. As Yugoslavia’s experience demonstrated, radical decentralization works in theory but does not always work in practice. The West will be confronted with the uneasy task of rejecting in the post-Soviet space solutions that it promoted two decades ago in the former Yugoslavia.
Confronted with Russia’s revisionism, the West resembles the proverbial drunkard searching for his lost keys under a streetlight, because that is where the light is. With their assumptions invalidated, Western leaders are struggling to craft an effective response.
In Europe, the strategies that have emerged – trivializing the annexation of Crimea or treating Putin as a madman – are self-defeating. The EU is oscillating between rhetorical extremism and policy minimalism. Though some have recommended an ill-advised expansion by NATO in the post-Soviet space, most are limiting themselves to support for symbolic sanctions, such as visa bans that affect a dozen or so Russian officials. But this could ratchet up pressure on non-sanctioned Russian elites to prove their loyalty to Putin, possibly even triggering a purge of the more pro-Western elements in Russia’s political class.
Indeed, no one actually believes that the visa bans will make a difference. They were imposed because doing so was the only action upon which Western governments could agree.
When it comes to Ukraine, both Western leaders and Western publics are in a mood of preventive disappointment. Burned by a decade of wishful thinking and over-expectations – from the “color revolutions” in the post-Soviet world to the Arab Spring – Western public opinion has chosen to hear only bad news now. And this is the real risk, because the future of the European order mostly depends on what happens next in Ukraine.
It is now clear that Crimea will not return to Kyiv; but it is also clear that postponement of the May election will mean the end of Ukraine, as we know it. It is the West’s responsibility to persuade Russia to support the elections – and to guarantee that the needed constitutional reforms will be decided in Kyiv, not in Dayton.