How to deal with an authoritarian leader, increasingly paranoid about the West, his greater regional aspirations turned to dust, who is now wielding military power in a manner more reminiscent of the Cold War than of anything since? One obvious response is counter-provocation, of the kind that John McCain and the Washington Post editorial board would instinctively prefer. It seems to me that, given how Putin has reacted to Western pressure so far, this would merely invite more recklessness.
The saner approach is to try and mollify some of Russia’s legitimate concerns about Ukraine – the rights of the pro-Russian Ukrainians in the East, for example, some of which were suspended (and now restored) by the new Kiev government, while persuading him of unstated but profoundly adverse consequences if he ratchets up the use of force even further. David Ignatius – unlike the breathless neocons on the WaPo editorial page – makes the case very effectively this morning. What our goal must be now, above everything, is avoiding any pretext for a Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine.
And the truth is: this is very much in Russia’s actual interests. Its stock market and currency are in free-fall this morning, but a full-scale invasion of Ukraine would mean a mutual bloodbath, effectively destroying Russia’s standing in the world, tearing up its relations with the major powers, including, possibly China, and rendering it a rogue, primitive, paranoid power, whose elites would be cut off from the global trade and financial markets they rely on. There must be some faction in the Kremlin able to see this, even if it only occupies a small part of Putin’s mind.