After the fall of the Soviet Union, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization looked for a reason to exist. It had been created after the Second World War to keep the USSR from marching any farther west, but by the 1990s, the Evil Empire was no more. The freed Eastern European states were entering the EU and NATO, and even Russia was seen as a Western partner. The Wall was down; the Soviet Union was gone – and NATO had nothing to do. Happy are those countries whose defensive military alliances can safely be allowed to rust away. And unhappy are those who suddenly discover that an old nemesis, whose death they witnessed and whose funeral they attended, has somehow come back to life.
Vladimir Putin's Russia is not the Soviet Union. The country he leads is economically weaker, relatively speaking. Its population is smaller. It is geographically diminished, having lost the Soviet republics except Russia itself, not to mention its former Eastern European satellites. The Soviet state was totalitarian, but in Mr. Putin's Russia the state is weak and disorganized. Soviet Moscow was the leader of a global ideological movement; Mr. Putin's Moscow has no coherent ideology beyond resentment and a warped Russian nationalism. Compared with the Soviet Union, Mr. Putin doesn't have much of a toolbox. But he still has the big hammer of military capability – and a willingness to use it.
What is happening in Ukraine is not a restart of the Cold War. But for the Atlantic world, this is the end of the post-Cold War. We had a happy quarter-century, dreaming about a democratic End of History. But Europe, and European history, are not quite done with us.
Mr. Putin, though weaker than the old Soviet leaders he so admires, is also less stable and more unpredictable. NATO was always prepared for war with the Soviet Union, but by the late 1960s it was clear that the Warsaw Pact was not about to try to storm across the West German border, sweep through Belgium and take Paris. The Soviets competed with the West and America in the Third World through political and military proxies, but direct military conflict in Europe was off the table. Détente was wanted by both sides. With his invasion of Ukraine, Mr. Putin has rolled things back to a state of predétente instability. He has crossed what we thought were bright and agreed-upon lines.
In the Helsinki accords of the 1970s, the Soviets agreed not to change European borders by force. And in the 1990s, Ukraine agreed to give up its post-Soviet nuclear weapons in return for security guarantees. Those rules of the game have been shredded.
The West has to play a long and patient game against Mr. Putin. We are not trying to go to war with Russia. But NATO and Western leaders must make it very clear that, because of his activities in Ukraine, we intend to hit Russia with heavy economic penalties – and though we will not send NATO troops into Ukraine, we will assist the Kiev government with money and weapons. As well, NATO must repeatedly remind Russia that Article 5 of the NATO treaty considers an attack on any member as an attack on all. Ukraine is not a NATO member – but Poland and the Baltic states are. Significant military forces should be stationed there. There is talk is of a mere few thousand soldiers, but that wasn't enough to defend Western Europe in the Cold War. It's not enough to defend Eastern Europe now. The goal is deterrence – creating a credible threat such that it never needs to be exercised.
On Wednesday in Estonia, President Barack Obama said the sort of things that NATO leaders must begin saying, and keep on saying for many years to come. "The defence of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defence of Berlin and Paris and London," said the President. "Article 5 is crystal-clear: An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, 'Who will come to help,' you'll know the answer – the NATO Alliance, including the Armed Forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now. We'll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again."
But the question of a Russian invasion of the Baltic states is a fear for the future. It is unlikely, though far from impossible. The situation in Ukraine is an actual crisis, happening right now. NATO intelligence says that on Thursday thousands of Russia troops and hundreds of Russian armoured vehicles were operating in Ukraine. A ceasefire was to go into effect on Friday, though nobody puts much credence in such talks any more. As Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen puts it, past ceasefires have "just been a smokescreen" to cover ongoing destabilization of Ukraine by Moscow.
Mr. Putin continues to deny that Russian forces are across the border, but his ambition to carve up that country appears to be growing. He may now want to freeze this conflict, having carved off Crimea and a chunk of Ukraine's east. Or this may be a prelude to more.
NATO is not about to send armed forces to Ukraine. Kiev is not a member of NATO. But it is a friend, an ally and a nascent democracy being torn apart at the barrel of a gun. The West must dispense with the baby-step sanctions seen thus far, and get tough. We also need to offer billions of dollars of economic assistance to Ukraine, to avoid its becoming a failed state. Finally, Ukraine needs military help. We will not send our soldiers; the least we can do is better arm theirs.
Russia may one day experience regime change, just as the Soviet Union did. When that happens, an enemy-less NATO will once again look quaint and pointless. The day cannot come soon enough.