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Putin's Endgame

By withholding severe sanctions in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent regions, the United States is demonstrating that it will abandon the principle of Ukrainian independence to prevent a war. That is exactly what Putin was counting on.

BRATISLAVA – This week, Russia officially recognized the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. By withholding the promised severe sanctions in response to this move, the United States and its NATO allies have signaled that they are willing to accept a permanent Russian occupation of Crimea and a semi-frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine if that is what it will take to prevent open warfare.

For a time, the West’s position could well result in “No War, No Peace,” the phrase that Leon Trotsky famously uttered as he stormed out of the Brest-Litovsk peace conference with Germany in 1918. And yet, it is far more likely to fulfill Winston Churchill’s famous riposte to Neville Chamberlain in 1938: “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.”

By continuing to signal its willingness to negotiate with Vladimir Putin, the West is telling Russia’s president that he is playing a winning hand, just as Chamberlain did by sacrificing the Sudetenland to Hitler. The message being sent – that avoiding a large-scale war in Europe is more important than upholding Ukrainian sovereignty – is music to Putin’s ears. And he knows the tune well, thanks to the Western response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and to its invasion and carve-up of Georgia in 2008.