Regarding the Russian aggression against Ukraine, much depends on what Vladimir Putin does next. But what Putin does depends on not only his calculation of the likely NATO (and especially the U.S.) response but also his estimate of how fiercely the Ukrainian people would respond to any further escalation by Russia. And, to complete the circle, the Ukrainian response would be influenced by citizens’ reaction to any repetition of Putin’s Crimean aggression and by whether the nation believes that the United States and NATO are truly supportive.
Putin’s thuggish tactics in seizing Crimea offer some hints regarding his planning. He knew in advance that his thinly camouflaged invasion would meet with popular support from the Russian majority in Crimea. He was not sure how the thin and light Ukrainian military units stationed there would react, so he went in masked like a Mafia gangster. In the event of serious Ukrainian resistance, he could disown the initiative and pull back.
His initial success may tempt him to repeat that performance more directly in the far eastern provinces of Ukraine. If successful, the conclusive third phase could then be directed, through a combination of political unrest and increasingly overt use of Russian forces, to overthrow the government in Kiev. The result would thus be similar to the two phases of Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland after Munich in 1938 and the final occupation of Prague and Czechoslovakia in early 1939.
Much depends on how clearly the West conveys to the dictator in the Kremlin — a partially comical imitation of Mussolini and a more menacing reminder of Hitler — that NATO cannot be passive if war erupts in Europe. If Ukraine is crushed while the West is simply watching, the new freedom and security in bordering Romania, Poland and the three Baltic republics would also be threatened.
This does not mean that the West, or the United States, should threaten war. But Russia’s unilateral and menacing acts mean the West should promptly recognize the current government of Ukraine as legitimate. Uncertainty regarding its legal status could tempt Putin to repeat his Crimean charade. The West also should convey — privately at this stage, so as not to humiliate Russia — that the Ukrainian army can count on immediate and direct Western aid so as to enhance its defensive capabilities. There should be no doubt left in Putin’s mind that an attack on Ukraine would precipitate a prolonged and costly engagement, and Ukrainians should not fear that they would be left in the lurch.
Meanwhile, NATO forces, consistent with the organization’s contingency planning, should be put on alert. High readiness for some immediate airlift to Europe of U.S. airborne units would be politically and militarily meaningful. If the West wants to avoid a conflict, there should be no ambiguity in the Kremlin as to what might be precipitated by further adventurist use of force in the middle of Europe.
In addition, such efforts to avert miscalculations that could lead to a war should be matched by a reaffirmation of the West’s desire for a peaceful accommodation with Russia regarding a joint effort to help Ukraine recover economically and stabilize politically. The West should reassure Russia that it is not seeking to draw Ukraine into NATO or to turn it against Russia. Ukrainians themselves can define the depth of their closeness to Europe and the scope of their economic cooperation with Russia, to the benefit of peace and stability in Europe. And after their May elections, they can revise some of the arrangements for a special status for Crimea, but they should not do so under duress or attack from a neighbor driven by imperial or personal ambitions.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser from 1977 to 1981.