A happy ending for Ukraine may be sitting on the shelves of history. But how much unhappiness must be endured before the eventual solution is a question for Vladimir Putin.
A little cushion between contending powers — especially nuclear powers — is a good thing. Formal neutrality recognizes that certain nations are fated by geography to be potential flashpoints; it allows them to go about their business without becoming a threat.
Neutrality would be a good solution for Ukraine, which lies between Russia and the European Union. Its location ensures that the terrain will forever be of interest to both West and East. Putin’s brinkmanship has, unfortunately, foreclosed progress toward a more stable Ukraine.
Satellite imagery supports Western estimates that Putin now has some 130,000 troops deployed on Ukraine’s border. He maintains that NATO’s “open door” policy is a threat to Russia’s future and has demanded a pledge from President Biden that Ukraine will never join the Western alliance. Putin wants NATO out of other former Soviet-bloc nations as well.
Or so he says. Actions, which speak louder than words, belie the idea that Putin genuinely seeks a particular outcome, because he is leaving his U.S. counterpart no room in which to operate. By pressing ahead with the unprovoked troop buildup, the Russian president has made it impossible for Biden to say anything other than no.
Rather than a military or territorial goal, Putin’s end game is probably the crisis itself. He is stress-testing the Western alliance and the United States’ capacity to lead. It’s no accident that this ginned-up stare-down has been manufactured in the immediate aftermath of NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Putin sees an opportunity to jab the West while it’s reeling. He hopes that Biden’s “no” will be rejected abroad and at home.
In that case, Biden wins, and the West wins, simply by holding steady. So far, he has.
The hard part might still be to come, however, because Putin could add further stress by actually invading Ukraine. Such an action — which some experts believe to be imminent — would most likely inflame tensions in Western countries between the rising tide of isolationists and the beleaguered ranks of internationalists. An inferno in Ukraine would strengthen the argument that says, “The world’s a mess, let’s go home.” Which is exactly what Putin wants the United States to do: pull back, stand down, go home.
If, in such a perilous situation, Biden can lead with the strategic patience that has been the hallmark of U.S. policy in Europe for more than 75 years, another Putin invasion of Ukraine would prove to be a disastrous mistake. Ukraine doesn’t want Russia. Ukrainians know all about Russian occupation and domination. Their sufferings under Moscow’s fist in the 20th century alone include extremes of poverty, famine and death. Russia could not successfully rule Ukraine even when the former Soviet Republic was a broken wreck after World War II; the Ukrainians split away the first chance they got. How could Putin expect to do any better now that Ukraine has its own army and weapons?
Though the idea of a European war is appalling, a clear boundary can be drawn around the battlefield by a united, determined West, leaving Putin to ponder the Russian word for “quagmire.”
But it may not come to that. The most important news from Europe in recent days was not about troop buildups. It was about buildups of natural gas — rapidly accumulating supplies in Western European storage facilities.
Russia’s influence is greatest when stores are tight because it is Europe’s principal gas supplier (for now, anyway). Energy is a lever to pry the West apart. But Putin’s reckless use of that leverage has helped create a booming market for liquefied natural gas from the United States and the Middle East. Just when Putin was counting on sky-high gas prices to shake the morale of NATO allies, those prices are coming back to earth.
In other words, the period of maximum pressure on the West may already be behind us. Putin’s energy squeeze is failing. His bluff at the border is being called. Whether the crisis ends peacefully, or whether it ends tragically for a lot of Ukrainians and Russians, is entirely up to Putin. But it will end — provided that Biden and the allies don’t blink.