It didn’t take the (Russian) empire long to strike back. Having won a passel of medals at Sochi, but lost a country at the same time, Vladimir Putin is predictably perturbed. And when the tsar is angry, his own people and his neighbors feel his wrath.
With Ukrainians having overthrown Putin’s ally, Viktor Yanukovych, Putin has ordered a riposte: Russian army units in western Russia and air forces across the country have been scrambled for an unscheduled “exercise.” At the same time, the pro-Russian population of the Crimea, home to an important Russian naval base, has been talking about secession from the rest of Ukraine–no doubt with the Kremlin’s encouragement.
It is by no means inconceivable that the two events could be linked–that Putin could send his troops into part of eastern and southern Ukraine on the pretext of “protecting” the Russian minority, much as Hitler did with Czechoslovakia.
This is muscle-flexing or saber-rattling–choose your metaphor–of a very old-fashioned kind seldom seen in Europe since 1945. But then Putin does not play by the rules that have governed much of the continent since World War II–witness his invasion of Georgia in 2008.
This is hardly a 1930s-style test for the West: Putin is no Hitler, and Russia is no Nazi Germany, bent on endless conquest. But it is a test nevertheless, and an important one. Putin is very much a tsar in temperament and action, and he seems bent on trying to resurrect as much of the Russian Empire as possible–if not as a formal state then as a Russian sphere of influence.
The West failed Georgia, but at least there the argument can be made it is a small country far away from the center of Europe and there was not much that could be done. Not so Ukraine: It is a large country (45 million people) located on the border with NATO members Poland, Hungary, and Romania.
The stakes are large, and the West must be prepared to send a clear signal that Russia has to back down. The clearest way to send such a signal would be (a) to finally offer a large financial package to Ukraine to prevent its economic spiral from getting out of control and (b) to offer, or at least talk about offering, Ukraine membership in NATO.
So far Europe and the U.S. prefer to talk about what to do rather than doing something. Putin is not bound by such scruples, and he is acting in ways that require a counter, lest Ukraine once again fall under the Kremlin’s control.