Russian President Vladimir Putin answers journalists' questions about Ukraine. in Saint Petersburg on July 13, 2021. Photo: AFP / Alexey Nikolsky / Sputnik

As the world watches with a stunning degree of ambivalence the makings of a world war in Ukraine, Western leaders soothe themselves that the situation will not erupt into a wider war. Yet it does not appear that either the Russian or the Ukrainian government has a similar understanding of the situation. 

Even after a protracted discussion between Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden, where the US president apparently gave assurances to the Russian leader that he would support a ratcheting down of tensions in the region, Russian forces continue surging to their contested border with eastern Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has supposedly taken a provocative step by deploying one of its naval ships near Russian forces in the Kerch Strait. In response, Moscow ordered the Kerch Strait closed. 

The Kerch Strait is a tiny yet strategically important waterway that connects Ukraine with the Azov Sea, and from the Azov Sea and the Port of Mariupol to the world beyond. Russia controls this waterway. By depriving Ukraine access of the strait, Moscow is in effect blockading the country’s only maritime route outside of the region.

To be clear: The Russian action is illegal under the conditions of international law (I know, very passé). 

But what can Ukraine do against the Russian war machine – even with all its new, fancy NATO military gear? More important, why the hell does the North Atlantic Treaty Organization want to risk a war with Russia over Ukraine? 

The decision to behave provocatively toward Russian forces in the Kerch Strait by Ukraine came shortly after a long phone call between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky leader and President Biden.

Some insiders familiar with the call have elaborated that, contrary to their public statements, the Biden administration tacitly concurs with the Putin regime: that eastern Ukraine must be neutralized as a point of contention between the two nuclear-armed powers. 

To achieve this, the pro-Western government in Kiev must cede its claim to eastern Ukraine, which Moscow has coveted since it illegally annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Washington does not seek to see Russia take all of Ukraine. But there does appear to be an appreciation by those in Washington that the only way war can be avoided will be if the eastern Ukraine question is resolved fully at the diplomatic table. 

And any failure by Washington and Brussels to stand beside Ukraine in its crucible will be taken by the rest of the world as further proof that America’s security guarantees are worthless. Years of feckless posturing and gaslighting of Kiev by less-than-committed Western governments in the face of a large, irredentist Russian neighbor has led to this pathetic moment in the history of the Western alliance.

Of course, what Putin and Biden are proposing as a resolution to the Ukraine quandary is a terrible deal for the government in Kiev. And Ukraine’s desperate government just might decide to make a final stand in the face of a Russian onslaught, triggering a war between the two sides, and possibly starting a European conflict that rapidly devolves into a world war.

But the world is not yet there. Certainly, Ukraine deserves better than the fate to which geography has consigned its gallant people. Sadly, geography is destiny. Few in NATO are willing – or even able – to wage war on behalf of Ukraine against a nuclear-armed Russia that has little to lose.

Yet Western governments continue beating their hollow chests at the Russian autocrat who has more nukes and tanks amassed against Europe than he knows what to do with.

The world again finds itself in a similar predicament to that during the run-up to the First World War: being led by statesmen from the last century who completely misunderstood the nature, speed, and severity of the new era of warfare.

Miscalculations will abound. What those in Washington assume to be a tertiary issue between Russia and Ukraine, to be resolved through the usual combination of carrots-and-sticks, in Kiev and Moscow this is a matter of national survival and prestige. It’s also a family matter between two squabbling groups in the larger Slavic community. 

When fear, honor, blood, interest and ambition – the most essential components of human affairs – are on the line, do not expect reason to win the day. 

And as various Western governments “signal” their desire for war against Russia, many of those same governments (I’m looking at you, Germany) have gleefully embraced Russia as a vital trading partner.

Russia sits atop of veritable sea of natural gas and oil, a position Moscow has dutifully exploited. Russian natural gas floods Europe, even as the various governments there attempt to hold fast to Washington’s line. Ultimately, money talks and excrement walks. Germany and the rest of Europe are far too reliant on Russian energy, and it is unlikely that most of these governments will risk their access to affordable, reliable energy for the sake of Ukraine.

So real changes are already afoot in Europe. The Ukraine crisis is just expediting those changes – which will not redound to America’s geopolitical benefit, no matter how much chest-thumping Washington does.

The loss of eastern Ukraine to Russia, either in the immediacy of war or the protracted diplomatic talks that Biden hopes will follow in the coming year, is likely a fait accompli. And the American position in Europe, one way or another, will be permanently damaged. 

The question must be: What price is the West willing to pay for its lack of strategy for more than seven years regarding the matter or Ukraine? Is Ukraine worth a nuclear world war?

One way or another, a new Europe is at hand. This Europe will be far bloodier and divided than the Europe of the last few decades. It will also be unlike anything Washington has grown accustomed to since the end of the Cold War. 

Washington has taken Europe for granted and has spent years stupidly painting Russia as the great villain of our time (it’s certainly a problem, but it is not the great villain. China is).

Now, as Moscow embraces the role that Washington has created for it, and the West is totally unprepared for the ferocity of Russian aggression against Ukraine, the only question left to answer is: How Russian will Europe become in the next decade … and how anti-American will it be? 

Brandon J Weichert

Brandon J Weichert is the author of Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower. He is a geopolitical analyst who manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right. His work appears regularly in The Washington Times and Real Clear Politics. Weichert is a former US congressional staffer who holds an MA in statecraft and national security affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, and is an associate member of New College, Oxford University.