Opinion writer

Vladimir Putin baptized his conquest of Crimea with a powerful, unsettling speech that should be a warning that an embattled Russia is fighting for what it sees as its national dignity — in ways that require a firm and patient U.S. response.

Putin played all the strings of the balalaika in his speech Tuesday announcing the annexation of Crimea. He was, by turns: sentimental, sarcastic, resentful and intimidating. He put the world on notice that he is determined to restore Russia’s place as a leading nation, even as its domestic economic and political position decays.

Eerily, Putin painted the Cold War as a benign moment: “After the dissolution of bipolarity on the planet, we no longer have stability.” Putin’s cure, evidently, is a return to what he would see as principled confrontation of an arrogant America.

The gist of Putin’s argument is that Russia has been subject to “double standards,” with the United States “calling the same thing white today and black tomorrow.” For example, he said that the United States asserts a legal right for Kosovo to break away from Serbia but will not recognize Crimea’s split from Ukraine.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Putin is right: The United States does indeed ask to be treated differently than other countries, but not because it is an innately “exceptional” or “indispensable” nation, as some would claim, but because the practical consequences of American leadership have been positive, especially for Europe.

The test of good U.S. policy going forward should be precisely this standard: Will American leadership help create a stable and prosperous Ukraine that can join the European economy, without threatening the security of Russia? Every element of American power should be focused on this goal.

Putin showed in his grandiose speech that he has a long memory. Indeed, modern history seems to be a nightmare from which he is trying to awaken. He lamented: “What seemed impossible became a reality. The U.S.S.R. fell apart. . . . If you compress the spring all the way to its limit, it will snap back hard.” Putin is no Hitler, but his speech was chilling because these passages evoked the Anschluss themes of resentment and retaliation against national humiliation.

Americans and Europeans should have long memories, too — a perspective that goes deeper than the United States’ recent mistakes in Iraq, and its interrogation policy and overzealous use of NSA surveillance. The abiding truth about the United States is that it has been Europe’s friend and salvation. It rescued the continent from two world wars, unselfishly and at great cost. In place of Europe’s misguided “reparations” plan to punish Germany after World War I, the United States adopted the Marshall Plan for European reconstruction after World War II.

Most important, the United States kept faith with the idea that communist dictatorship would not be a permanent fact of life for Germany, Poland, the Baltic states and Russia itself. When the Soviet empire fell, the United States and its allies were ready to help build out Europe, whole and free.

Honest students of history should admit that the United States, like Russia, has embraced a “sphere of influence” near its borders, as expressed by the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 . Two modern examples of intervention in our region are the U.S. invasions of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989. So while we assert the illegality of Russia’s recent actions, we should understand that they are not unique — and may be remediable.

“Ukraine matters,” says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. By that, she means the United States needs to work now in Ukraine, as it did across Europe after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, to build free markets and open political systems. This will require money, probably more than the $15 billion that Europe has already pledged. It will mean “tough love” in fighting Ukraine’s endemic corruption. Though Ukraine won’t be a NATO member anytime soon, the alliance can help Ukraine build a strong security force through the Partnership for Peace program, of which it has been a member since 1994.

What will this future Ukraine look like? Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser, has spoken of a “Finlandization” process of neutral independence. Graham Allison of Harvard’s Belfer Center has urged a similar “Belgian solution,” looking east and west at once.

Putin seems to understand that Ukraine is the strategic prize. He made an elaborate show of respect Tuesday, asserting: “We want Ukraine to be a strong, sovereign and self-sufficient country.” Amen to that. The challenge for U.S. policymakers is to make this free and independent Ukraine work.

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