It is now reasonably safe to say that Vladimir Putin believes he is the Emperor of Eastern Europe. It is also safe to say he’s right.
An emperor is of course not always some sort of super-king, but often a primus inter pares in a host of assembled kings. The Holy Roman Emperor could at times muster the various assembled Electors, Princes, Dukes, and so on of the German statelets over which he ruled, together at times with his Spanish possessions, to form a might host; other times, his might was sufficient to earn him the most respectful audience, but little more.
It is in this position that Vladimir Putin, the Tsar in all but name of Russia, finds himself. He has more or less brazenly moved forces into Crimea to secure his control there (with, it must be noted, a population at least by a plurality in favor of Russian annexation). He has massed forces on Ukraine’s border, he has had his vassal Aleksandr Lukashenko approve the movement of Russian forces through his satrapy, he has activated his nascent forces in Transnistria — and he has functionally encircled Ukraine as a result.
The West’s response has been to threaten to get serious, some time soon. Washington’s is the most obvious of the weak responses, but America’s interest in the promotion of Western-facing democracies has taken a beating over the last decade and a half; and at any rate, the real interest here is Europe’s.
Yet Germany, where Gazprom has made a habit of buying out the political class (and which relies on Russian gas for its heavy industry) and the United Kingdom, home to Russian billionaires and mere millionaires, are timidly discussing sanctions. Maybe. Europe as a whole is ambivalent, even if Poland is clearly ready for war.
The problem here is that, as one wag on Twitter noted, the currency of diplomacy is not words but force. Without force, words are a waste of electrons. For seventy years, Europe has enjoyed a rare situation in which a hegemon pledged its force to defend a group of lesser states, allowing that group to pretend that words matter more than force. As such, even if anyone particularly wanted to go to war to stop Putin from threatening or annexing Ukraine, no one is in any position to do so (again, other than Poland, who has spent the last two decades anticipating exactly this moment).
And even Poland can do only so much. Its military doctrine is based on defense inside of Poland, to play for time until NATO mobilizes. While one can envision a line of defense outside of Kyiv to protect the Western half of Ukraine, with the encirclement Ukraine faces, there is simply no way to create a defense in depth of sufficient strength to hold against a massed Russian attack.
Even though Russia’s military is a shadow of the Soviet Union’s, it is still superior to anything else on the Continent, and especially in Eastern Europe.
Putin knows this. Angela Merkel knows this. Worse, Moldova and Georgia know this as well.
Today, with the complete abdication of Western responsibilities to the rest of Europe — an abdication that began six months ago, when Ukraine was rebuffed in seeking shelter from Russia — and with no military force on the ground prepared to stop Putin, there is nothing crazy about Putin’s current obvious intent to roll tanks or threaten to do so. Worse, there would be nothing crazy about Moldova’s and Georgia’s understanding that same lesson.
Our old world order is dying in the face of the abdication of the West. What comes after will be a darker and worse world by far.
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