When Mr. Putin explained why he was playing hardball, Mr. Obama responded that the Russian leader “seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations.” But the Russian leader is obviously not talking with lawyers; he sees this conflict in geopolitical, not legal terms.
Mr. Putin’s view is understandable. Because there is no world government to protect states from one another, major powers are acutely sensitive to threats — especially near their borders — and they sometimes act ruthlessly to address potential dangers. International law and human rights concerns take a back seat when vital security issues are at stake.
Mr. Obama would be advised to stop talking to lawyers and start thinking like a strategist. If he did, he would realize that punishing the Russians while trying to pull Ukraine into the West’s camp will only make matters worse.
The West has few options for inflicting pain on Russia, while Moscow has many cards to play against Ukraine and the West. It could invade eastern Ukraine or annex Crimea, because Ukraine regrettably relinquished the nuclear arsenal it inherited when the Soviet Union broke up and thus has no counter to Russia’s conventional superiority.
Furthermore, Russia could stop cooperating with America over Iran and Syria; it could badly damage Ukraine’s struggling economy and even cause serious economic problems in the European Union due to its role as a major gas supplier. Not surprisingly, most Europeans aren’t very enthusiastic about employing costly sanctions against Russia.
But even if the West could impose significant costs on Russia, Mr. Putin is unlikely to back down. When vital interests are at stake, countries are invariably willing to suffer great pain to ensure their security. There is no reason to think Russia, given its history, is an exception.
Mr. Obama should adopt a new policy toward Russia and Ukraine — one that seeks to prevent war by recognizing Russia’s security interests and upholding Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
To achieve those goals, the United States should emphasize that Georgia and Ukraine will not become NATO members. It should make clear that America will not interfere in future Ukrainian elections or be sympathetic to a virulently anti-Russian government in Kiev. And it should demand that future Ukrainian governments respect minority rights, especially regarding the status of Russian as an official language. In short, Ukraine should remain neutral between East and West.
Some might say these policy prescriptions amount to a defeat for America. On the contrary, Washington has a deep-seated interest in ending this conflict and maintaining Ukraine as a sovereign buffer state between Russia and NATO. Furthermore, good relations with Russia are essential, because the United States needs Moscow’s help to deal with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and eventually to help counter China, the only genuine potential rival to the United States.
John J. Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, is the author of “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.”