Putin’s Reality Check for Europe

BERLIN – For far too long, the West has harbored illusions about Vladimir Putin’s Russia – illusions that have now been shattered on the Crimean peninsula. The West could (and should) have known better: Ever since his first term in office as Russian president, Putin’s strategic objective has been to rebuild Russia’s status as a global power.

To this end, Putin used Russia’s energy exports to recover gradually the territories lost when the Soviet Union collapsed a generation ago. Ukraine has been at the heart of this strategy, because, without it, the aim of a revived Russia is unachievable. So Crimea was just the first target; the next will be eastern Ukraine and persistent destabilization of the country as a whole.

Before our eyes, the post-Soviet international system in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia is being overthrown. Nineteenth-century concepts of international order, based on zero-sum balance-of-power considerations and spheres of interest, are threatening to supersede modern norms of national self-determination, the inviolability of borders, the rule of law, and the fundamental principles of democracy.

As a result, this upheaval will have a massive impact on Europe and its relations with Russia, for it will determine whether Europeans live by twenty-first-century rules. Those who believe that the West can adapt to Russian behavior, as Putin’s Western apologists suggest, risk contributing to further strategic escalation, because a soft approach will merely embolden the Kremlin.