Russia's invasion of Ukraine has put Moldova on high alert. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency

The Kremlin has been very clear about its intentions in Ukraine since Russia initially invaded Crimea in 2014 and annexed it: President Vladimir Putin wants to return Russian-speaking regions of the former Soviet Union, notably those closest to Russia’s borders, to the Russian Federation.

Putin will not abandon this quest. For him, it is an essential component not only to Russian national security but also for Russia’s sociopolitical fabric. Yet the West consistently ignored Russian concerns and insisted that Ukraine become a member of the ever-growing NATO and European Union alliance.

Failure to recognize Putin’s obsession with keeping Ukraine as, at the very least, a neutral state has led to this dark place where Europe – and the world – is staring at the prospect of another great-power war.

The chances for miscalculations and misinterpretations abound. Unfortunately, the West has little leverage over the Russians as they wade into the eastern Ukrainian breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. After all, neither the North Atlantic Treaty Organization nor the Americans have deployed anywhere near enough forces to deter the Russians believably.

And both the Europeans and Americans have made clear that they’ll not send their forces into Ukraine to interdict against any Russian invasion there. In fact, the Americans have spent the last several weeks evacuating their personnel to western Ukraine and, as of Monday, out of the country entirely and into nearby Poland – an actual NATO member.

(This raises the question why it was necessary for US President Joe Biden even to make a stink about Russia’s entirely predictable moves into eastern Ukraine.) 

What’s more, Biden has maintained that he’d accept a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine. Well, Putin’s decision to recognize the two breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine appears to be exactly that: a minor incursion.

Now that these two Russian-speaking enclaves have been recognized by Moscow as their own entities, the “governments” there have “requested” Russian “military assistance.” Moscow has dutifully responded by deploying “peacekeepers” – just as Russia did in 2008 in Georgia and just as it did in Crimea in 2014 and again in Kazakhstan in January of this year. Once Russian peacekeepers move in, they rarely move out.

Not to worry, though, our tough leaders in Washington have crafted what they are referring to as the “nuclear option” in terms of sanctions of Russia. These leaders assure those few Americans who actually care about Ukraine’s fate that if Russia invades, they will divorce Russia from the world banking system; the sanctions Western leaders will impose will in effect send Russia back to the Stone Age. 

That ought to show that pesky Putin! 

Of course, few appear to understand that sanctions imposed after Putin gets what he has long wanted – eastern Ukraine – are worthless. The facts on the ground will still be that Putin has achieved his objective and the West has lost.

Further, sanctions applied after Russia’s victory will do little more than militate Russia further against the West while ensuring Moscow moves firmly into China’s orbit … a true geopolitical nightmare for the United States. And now it appears that the West won’t be applying these sanctions at all anyway. 

Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent attempt at a diplomatic resolution for the crisis has been proved, less than 24 hours after Biden and Putin agreed to meet later this week, to be a wasted endeavor as well. It was just another way for Putin to show to the world how broken and weak the NATO alliance was.

According to Macron, the meeting was contingent upon no further Russian military action being taken against Ukraine. The recognition of the breakaway regimes in eastern Ukraine and the acquiescence by Putin to their request for peacekeepers is an invasion of sovereign Ukrainian territory. So, no meeting, then? Who knows? More handwringing and shame-tweeting from Western “leaders” are sure to follow.

Russia has already achieved its objective. With each passing moment, Western leaders make themselves look weaker in the face of Russia’s obvious win.

Just as with Russia’s annexations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia in 2008, or of Crimea in 2014, or more recently in northern Kazakhstan, it is unlikely that once lodged into eastern Ukraine, Russia will hand it back to Kiev. Short of full-scale war, the West cannot restore things to the way they were before February 21, 2022.

A further expansion of the sanctions against Russia will not have their intended effect. What’s more, Ukraine’s fate is sealed, and wasting more time trying to fight over that fact will only drain the West of precious time, resources, and lives.

It is time to move on from the Ukraine sideshow and focus on reinforcing the NATO partners in Eastern and Northern Europe that are now threatened by Russia. 

Thirty years of bad American policy has consigned Ukraine to its fate as a bifurcated nation torn between ravenous Russians and neutralized Ukrainians in the western portion of the country. Ukraine will be that which Russia always wanted it to be after the Cold War: a neutral, weakened buffer zone separating Russian territory from that of the West.

Too bad the West didn’t live up to the treaty obligations it had made after the Cold War so that all this heartache could have been avoided. 

Now that Putin has achieved his goals in eastern Ukraine, the West must be concerned about future irredentism from Moscow – and the only way to deter that is to provide support to countries like Poland that are ready and able to prevent greater Russian aggression … and to give Russia in eastern Ukraine a wide berth to avoid unnecessary escalation until NATO is fully reinforced.

Holding Putin back from taking more of Europe is required now, but escalating in Europe, while China rises in the East and Iran prepares to acquire nuclear weapons, is not the most strategic use of America’s limited resources.

Deter Russia by amplifying the indigenous powers of European NATO members, yes. Just don’t get sucked into a wasteful great-power war over inconsequential hinterlands like Ukraine with a nuclear-armed Russia. 

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.