BRUSSELS – Russia’s seizure of Crimea is the most naked example of peacetime aggression that Europe has witnessed since Nazi Germany invaded the Sudetenland in 1938. It may be fashionable to belittle the “lessons of Munich,” when Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier appeased Hitler, deferring to his claims on Czechoslovakia. But if the West acquiesces to Crimea’s annexation – the second time Russian President Vladimir Putin has stolen territory from a sovereign state, following Russia’s seizure of Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions in 2008 – today’s democratic leaders will surely regret their inaction.
In Western capitals, the response so far has been mixed. The punishments being considered – expulsion from the G-8, for example – would be laughable were the threat to Europe’s peace not so grave. Putin regards the breakup of the Soviet Union as the greatest catastrophe of modern times, and he has sought relentlessly to refashion Russia’s lost empire. If the West intends to be taken seriously, it needs to act as decisively as Putin has.
Putin’s many successes in his imperial project have come virtually without cost. His Eurasian Economic Community has corralled energy-rich states like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan into Russia’s camp. Georgia was dismembered in 2008. Armenia’s government was bullied into spurning the European Union’s offer of an Association Agreement.
Now the greatest geostrategic prize of all – Ukraine – may fall into Putin’s hands. Russia without Ukraine, former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote, “ceases to be an empire, but Russia with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” And, because the vast majority of Ukrainians have no desire to join Putin’s empire, we can be certain that the state Putin will lead from this point on will be a highly militarized one, rather like the Soviet Union but without the ruling Communist Party.