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Putin has already won in Ukraine

A pro-Russian militiamen guards a government building in Slovyansk, Ukraine
A pro-Russian militiamen guards a government building in Slovyansk, Ukraine
Ilya Pitalev/Kommersant Photo via Getty

Four weeks after President Obama dismissed Russia as a "regional power" acting "out of weakness," Russia still seems strong enough to foment chaos in a neighboring country, possibly as prelude for its second invasion in as many months, and the world looks increasingly unable to stop it. Obama was right when he said that Russian President Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine would cost Russia. What he did not say was that Putin is willing to endure those costs, but no Western leader is willing to endure the costs of stopping him. That's why Putin is winning.

The extent of Putin's victory became much clearer on Sunday. Over the weekend, Ukraine's enfeebled new government faced two options, both of them bad, for dealing with the pro-Russian militants who had seized urban areas in eastern Ukraine: It could allow the militants (widely suspected to include Russian troops) to dig in unencumbered, or it could send in security forces to clear them out.

Either path seemed likely to end in the same place: with eastern Ukraine subsumed into Russia, as Crimea had been in March. If Ukrainian forces stood down, the militant-held areas could become de facto independent, and would almost certainly invite the tens of thousands of Russian troops massed just across the border to "liberate" them as new Russian territories. If the Ukrainian forces moved in, those Russian troops might just invite themselves as peacekeepers. Moscow has been laying the groundwork for an "intervention" for weeks, warning of an imminent "civil war" that had to be stopped. The Ukrainian government, perhaps deciding that it was better to go down swinging, chose to send in security forces on Sunday.

It was not a disaster, but nor was it anything resembling a success. Ukrainian commandos tried to retake militant-held buildings in Slovyansk but, either outmatched or unwilling to further escalate the violence, fell back. Four thousand miles away in the United Nations headquarters in New York, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said what everybody was thinking: that the crisis has been engineered by Moscow from the beginning. And yet, like the Ukrainian forces who'd retreated in Slovyansk, she appeared helpless to stop the plan that Russia had set in motion.

No one can say for sure where the crisis in eastern Ukraine is going. Ukrainian leaders seem convinced that Russia is bent on annexing eastern Ukraine as it did Crimea. Some analysts share this view, though others believe Russia's aim is only slightly more modest: to humiliate and weaken Ukraine such that it is once more subservient to Russia.

On Monday, Ukraine took a step in this direction by signaling that it may bow to one of Russia's top demands: a national referendum on adopting a federal system. That would leave the Russian-speaking eastern regions more independent from the Ukrainian government, and presumably more closely linked to Moscow.

Whatever the destination, it is increasingly evident that Russia has been driving the crisis from the beginning, as it was in Crimea a month ago. The difference is that, this time, we know what's happening, we see all the warning signs, but the West is still unable or unwilling to stop it.

The annexation of Crimea was different. By the time the world fully understood that Crimea's pro-Russian protesters and local militias were in fact a Russian invasion force, the troops had already taken control. By the time Crimea's referendum to secede from Ukraine and re-join Russia was revealed as ridden by intimidation, abuse, and potentially fraud, much of the world had already changed its maps. The Russian plan was always one step ahead.

That's not true anymore. Russia appears to be enacting the same plan in eastern Ukraine but is doing it practically in broad daylight. And the ploy is not subtle: (1) Moscow warns that chaos could break out in eastern Ukraine and lead to a civil war, (2) Moscow instigates the very chaos it had been warning us about, (3) it uses the tens of thousands of troops it just happens to have nearby to intervene and stop the chaos it had helped create, (4) eastern Ukraine, now under de facto Russian military occupation, holds a Crimea-style referendum to join Russia.

We're not at that third step yet, much less the fourth, and it's possible that Russia only plans to implicitly threaten an intervention to get political leverage. But the point is that the process has been more or less apparent from the beginning. So why hasn't anyone stopped it?

The hard truth is that Ukraine, while not totally on its own, is sort of on its own. Ukrainian leaders have wisely chosen to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia, which it would almost certainly lose, and which would give Moscow an excuse to seize even more Ukrainian territory. That leaves the United States and Europe, which clearly oppose Russia's actions in Ukraine, but are only willing to go so far to stop them from continuing.

The US and Europe have three main options for stopping Russia, all of which run into the same problem: Russia, despite Obama's comments, is a pretty big and powerful country. The first option is targeted economic sanctions on top Russian officials: the US and European Union did this already, but it hasn't appreciably deterred Moscow. The second is broader sanctions against the Russian economy; damaging the Russian economy would similarly damage Western European economies, probably beyond what they're willing to accept during their tenuous recoveries from the Euro crisis. The third option is to threaten military retaliation, either explicitly or more implicitly by inviting Ukraine to apply for NATO membership; given that Russia has an enormous military and thousands of nuclear warheads, the risk of total global annihilation is probably higher than anyone is willing to accept.

To give you an indication of who holds all the power in this dynamic, consider that, a few weeks ago, it looked like a real possibility that European leaders might threaten to sanction Russia's multi-billion-dollar natural gas exports to punish it for annexing Crimea. It would have been a severe punishment, as well as symbolically appropriate, given that about half of Russia's gas exports to Europe flow through Ukraine.

In theory, this should have cowed Russia: its oil and gas exports are worth more than $350 billion annually and provide 52 percent of its federal budget. Putin's government cannot survive if Europe stops buying Russian oil and gas, or buys substantially less. But 24 percent of natural gas consumed in the European Union comes from Russia, including 37 percent in Germany. Shutting down or sanctioning Russian gas would hurt Europe. It would hurt Russia a great deal more, but that doesn't matter if Putin is more willing to endure the pain of a potential gas crisis than, say, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That's how he wins: by higher pain threshold.

A few days ago, as European leaders raised concerns that Russia might move into eastern Ukraine as well, Putin sent a letter to 18 European heads of state warning that Russia might voluntarily cut back those very gas exports through Ukraine, over Ukraine's unpaid gas bills. Putin had proven that he was more willing to endure a gas crisis.

And that is how the world fell into Russian President Vladimir Putin's trap: he knew, or simply lucked into, a blind spot in the international system. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, the American-European mutual defense treaty that has been creeping steadily eastward for decades. It is not a member of the European Union. It's not really important enough to European leaders that they'd risk their own economies to save it. Non-Western leaders can barely be bothered to care. It is effectively on its own, up against a much larger and more powerful country, in a battle it cannot win. Perhaps even more shocking than the fact that Russia invaded and annexed part of a neighboring country is that there was hardly anything to stop them.