For Putin, Eastern Europe is still up for grabs

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  • Middle East and East Asia are watching West fall short in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and now Ukraine

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  • As Putin shows, the West's triumph of the Cold War is not complete

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  • Putin's aim is less about gaining territory than it is about exploiting geopolitical weakness

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One of the first rules of sound strategy-making is “don’t fight for the same ground twice unless forced to.”

If this sounds more “19th-century” than “21st-century,” it’s because human affairs and international politics have yet to transcend geography in the way that Secretary of State John Kerry would have it. Ceding bits of the former Tsarist empire back to Vlad the Impaler is the very worst sort of weakness, and the “West”—even the languid reflection of a once-muscular liberal civilization—could easily freeze this Russian revanche in its tracks if it could summon the will to do so.

The West—but particularly the United States, which has been, since World War II, the creator and leader of what once described itself as the “Free World”—has an existential set of interests in halting and reversing Putin’s land grabs. One interest is as material and as “real” as anything contemplated by Castlereagh, Talleyrand, or Bismarck: the balance of power in Europe and the security of Germany. The second is global and systemic, more “reputational” but still very real: the credibility of the United States as the guarantor of the international order.

The apples of Putin’s eye—Crimea, Ukraine, Transnistria, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia—may seem a long way from Walla Walla or Paris, but they are not that far from Berlin or Warsaw. And Europe’s eastern marches, a swath of land running slightly northwest to southeast from Gdansk on the Baltic to Odessa on the Black Sea, is open ground with few natural boundaries or defenses. This space has been fought over, won, lost, and won again for millennia. The political order and the states of the region have been weak and transitory. If the Marx Brothers’ “Freedonia” were real, it would live here.

But Putin’s purpose is less to acquire this real estate at a bargain price than it is to exploit the geopolitical weakness of modern Germany. Whereas the fear of modern statesmen from the 1860s has been a Germany that is too strong, German weakness has been the more common problem, and one that is equally dangerous. Increasingly divorced from an inward-looking America, Angela Merkel seems less like a blood-and-iron German chancellor than a dazed and confused Holy Roman Emperor. The European Union—the modern European imperial structure—is rapidly devolving from a collection of strong national states into a congeries of principalities, palatinates, and duchies. The combination of German weakness and American distraction is an opportunity that Putin does not want to miss.

Putin also benefits when the West doesn’t recognize the connection between the eastern European marches and the security of Germany. The now-common alliance between isolationist Right and the Left is strongly sympathetic to Putin; the Cato Institute’s Ted Galen Carpenter and The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel agree that the United States should cede—nay, welcome—a rebuilt sphere of Russian influence, no matter the way in which it is achieved.

It has been the special mission of the United States and the United Kingdom—the “Anglo” powers of the West—to be not “offshore balancers,” but meddlesome engagers with continental powers to preserve what has been variously called the “liberties” of Europe or a “balance of power that favors freedom.” But President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron are punching that Russia “reset” button as often and as hard as they can, anxious to achieve peace in our time and get back to business as usual.

The rest of the world—particularly in the Middle East and East Asia—is watching the West quail and quiver, coming on the heels of Syria’s ignored “red lines,” the half-measures of Libya, the bug-out from Iraq, and even the halfway measures of the deadline-driven Afghanistan “surge” of 2009. Barack Obama is not so much leading the West from behind as to the rear.

But perhaps the most telling measure of Western weakness is the way that the United States and NATO have talked themselves out of any meaningful use of military force. To some degree, the we-have-no-options complaint is true: the West has all but disarmed itself, with the United States simply a lagging edge indicator. In the face of Putin’s aggression, the White House and congressional Republicans have seen no reason to halt the combination of budget cuts and “sequestration” that is laying the U.S. military to waste. Yet even these self-inflicted wounds don’t in fact mean that there aren’t options for halting Russian revanche—they’re just not the no-risk options that have become the new norm for any Western employment of military power.

The Western triumph of the Cold War was not complete. The Russians have chosen their dreams of greatness over our hopes for reform. Until now, they have little dared to realize those dreams, but now they see that the No Man’s lands of Eastern Europe can be had cheaply, and would permanently fracture NATO and the Western alliance it represents. For a generation, the West has failed to do what any platoon-leading lieutenant would do after a successful engagement—consolidate on the objective. There is still a chance to do so, but a diminishing one.

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