On Friday, Vladimir Putin took part in Victory Day celebrations in Crimea. The holiday is officially about the defeat of Nazi Germany, but it has also become a symbol of Russian nationalism and Soviet nostalgia. Crimea was liberated 70 years ago this month by the Red Army, and now Mr. Putin too has liberated it, or so he would like his countrymen to believe, and from a country he claims has been taken over by fascists.
If it sounds like a sequel to the events of three-quarters of a century ago, that is as Mr. Putin intended. “The iron will of the Soviet people,” he told Victory Day crowds in Moscow, “saved Europe from slavery.” Mr. Putin wants to be seen as the latest of a long line of iron-willed Soviet and Imperial Russian strongmen. For Russians, these parallels will be hard to miss, and many will be moved by them.
With the end of the Cold War, the threat to the West from the East disappeared. Within a few years of the Berlin Wall coming down, most of the former Warsaw Pact countries had become democracies, entered the European Union and joined NATO. This wasn’t a story of Eastern Europe scaling the wall and escaping to the West; the wall between East and West was supposed to have been destroyed. But it turns out it was simply dismantled and, along with other Soviet horrors, put into storage in Moscow. It is now being reassembled.
The fight in Ukraine is over exactly where the new wall will be erected. Will it be on Ukraine’s western border with Europe, as Moscow prefers? Or will it be on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia – as Western leaders and most Ukrainians want? The wall could also end up being drawn through the middle of the Ukraine, splitting the country as Germany once was, into West and East.
How should the West respond? We need a strategy to prevent Russia from rolling forward – and a patient, long-term plan to bring Ukraine fully into the West.
Turn NATO’s gaze East: For two decades, NATO’s biggest problem has been trying to figure out why it exists. Its existential crisis is now over; an organization that appeared to no longer have a mission is now more relevant than ever.
The alliance’s original purpose was not to go to war with Moscow. It was to ensure that, through strength and deterrence, it never had to. NATO’s mission in 2014 and beyond is no different. NATO will not be going to war in Ukraine, which is not a NATO member. But the West must make it exceptionally clear to Moscow, through words and the positioning of troops, that a hostile move against any NATO member will be treated as an attack on all. This is particularly important for the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, which have a lot in common with Ukraine. They were part of the Soviet Union, and are home to large Russian minorities.
Play a long game in Ukraine: The West wants Ukraine to join it. It also wants Ukraine to remain a united country, to avoid partition and to avoid drifting into a Yugoslavian-style civil war. At the same time, the West is not willing to go to war with Moscow over Ukraine; given that Russia is a nuclear-armed power, that’s prudent and realistic. But the West has a number of tools and strengths that mean that we, and Ukrainians, can still triumph in the long run.
For one thing, what the West wants and what most Ukrainians want – a united country – may also be what Mr. Putin would prefer. Our reasons are different: He hopes to keep all of Ukraine and not just part of it in Moscow’s camp. But on this field of conflict, there is some common ground. There may be room for finding a short-term solution that makes the country governable, even as the long-term competition over the future of Ukraine continues.
And if stability can be restored to Ukraine – a big if – the West’s chances of long-term victory are high. Recent polls show that an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, even in the restive eastern part of the country, want to remain in Ukraine and do not want to join Russia.
Federalism: This looks like the best hope of avoiding civil war and keeping the country together. Mr. Putin may want a federal solution that gives regions more power, but there’s no reason that the West and Kiev shouldn’t agree – and then use the breathing room brought by peace to create a stable country able to move outside Moscow’s orbit. Again, the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, even in the east, do not want to separate from Ukraine or join Russia. Moscow’s only hope for success is through a rise in chaos and violence, and a breakdown in authority.
Get Moscow back to the bargaining table: Mr. Putin is a liar and a thug. But he also runs an economically weak country that is slipping into recession, and he would like to avoid further rounds of sanctions. He cannot be trusted, but he can be negotiated with. There may be room to achieve at least an interim agreement to lower the level of violence and try to restore order.
That Moscow has not lived up to its promises from April’s Geneva agreement is no reason to stop talking. In Ukraine, Mr. Putin is most certainly our adversary – and as part of a larger plan to thwart and overcome him, we must continue to negotiate with him.
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