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Russian military trucks and buses line the side of a road in Russia's southern Rostov region, which borders the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, on Feb. 23.STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Aurel Braun is a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Toronto and an associate at the Davis Center at Harvard University.

Ensconced in a COVID-proof war room, the diminutive Russian leader vented his fury at Ukraine and a Western world that rejects his bizarre ahistorical claims. But he also must have relished the world’s rapt attention and the giant shadow he is casting over the international system.

With Vladimir Putin signing decrees recognizing the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, details keep flooding in (as likely are columns of Russian forces), but what is already clear is that Western deterrence has failed.

Whereas NATO states continue to pay lip service to the restoration of the illegally annexed Crimea to Ukraine, for months, the alliance, led by U.S. President Joe Biden, acquiesced to negotiating with Russia with a proverbial gun to their heads and basically pleaded with the Kremlin not to seize additional Ukrainian territory. Gone are the promises of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, when Kyiv was persuaded to give up the third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world in exchange for guarantees for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Now, although Mr. Putin has not taken over Ukraine outright, he appears confident about acquiring it on an instalment plan.

So far, all this has been a remarkable achievement for Mr. Putin. Leading a remnant of a superpower with a nominal GDP comparable to that of Italy’s, he has been able to bully the most powerful military alliance in history into denying Ukraine anything more than a trickle of defensive armaments with which to defend itself and has intimidated the American leadership to the extent that Mr. Biden even today is only proceeding with reactive sanctions (largely against the breakaway regions) while holding back the most potent ones in case of further Russian aggression.

Mr. Putin certainly has been fortunate in his American opponents. Confusing alliance unity and leadership, Mr. Biden proclaimed Monday that the U.S. would respond “swiftly and decisively, in lockstep with allies and partners.” Given the massive failure of American deterrence, this may well mean unity at the lowest common denominator, more resembling Germany’s do-as-little-as-possible policy versus Britain’s muscular readiness to step up with meaningful actions and sanctions. Is this “leadership from behind”? Is showing weakness creating a temptation for Mr. Putin?

So far Mr. Putin seems to be tactically picture-perfect by apparently settling, for the time being, on snatching only the Donbas from Ukraine. He is cashing in his chips and taking his winnings. He has prepared for sanctions for many months and, with China’s help, he seems sanguine about defeating the ones that will be levelled at Russia over this limited additional destruction of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Moreover, he has successfully used the excuse of Russian concern over NATO enlargement as a way of guilting the West and deterring effective actions. His primary goal, however, is to stay in power unchallenged indefinitely. He runs a repressive, corrosive kleptocracy that is in search of an ideology. His aim is to exercise power in a way in which he and his regime enjoy international immunity and can act domestically with impunity.

Yet, all is not lost for Ukraine and the West. Mr. Putin is a ruthless but not a reckless leader. He invariably looks for soft targets and seems driven as much by temptation as by ambition. The people of Ukraine are in a precarious position, but there could be some silver linings. Ukraine is grievously wounded, but with the coming Russian annexation of the Donbas, the rebel proxies of Moscow will not have the veto over Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy that the Russian interpretation of the Minsk Accords would have granted them.

Further, the West has an opportunity to institute a kind of Marshall Plan that would give Kyiv the economic lifeline to transform the country into a prosperous, advanced democracy. Additionally, the alliance could move swiftly to make Ukraine a hard target militarily so as to remove future temptation from Mr. Putin. In turn this would involve opening the spigot in a major way, allowing Ukraine to acquire large numbers of defensive weapons, both anti-tank and anti-aircraft, advanced radars, improved command-and-control systems and enhanced cyberdefences.

The alliance could also try to drive down energy prices by perhaps delaying briefly the move away from fossil fuels, for this would not only help alliance members and Ukraine this winter but could also deal a devastating blow to the Russian economy.

There are genuine opportunities for the West to restore deterrence, help Ukraine thrive and ensure that Mr. Putin’s tactical victories turn into Pyrrhic ones. NATO is hardly helpless but it needs to restore deterrence.

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