Vladimir Putin has been holding his own against harsh Western sanctions. Photo: AFP / Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik

It is not clear yet whether the Ukraine crisis will end peacefully, or whether war will erupt on European soil. Nevertheless, several observations are in order.

For years, many in the West have celebrated the reduced utility of military force in international relations. Scholars heralded “the end of history” and the reign of a norm-based international liberal order. 

Yet whatever progress there was, human nature did not change. As Thucydides aptly pointed out, fear is a basic and powerful instinct. 

A fearful Russia amassed many troops along the Ukrainian border to draw American attention to its demands. Indeed, the tacit threat of military invasion got the US to listen to Moscow’s security concerns. 

Russia wants to be treated like the Soviet Union. So it wants a voice in the European security structure.

The turn of events was not a surprise to the old-fashioned, still clinging to a realpolitik prism of world politics, particularly after Russia swallowed Crimea and encouraged irredentism in eastern Ukraine. 

Russia could not remain aloof to the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union eastward and the Western encouragement of “color revolutions.” On the contrary, the democratic crusade frightened a Russia that was neither invited to join nor consulted.

Russia also resurrected the notions of buffer zones and spheres of influence. It signaled that it might resort to violence to secure larger margins of security by demanding that states along its borders, nominally independent, remain within its security orbit. Considering past invasions from the West, Russian fears are reasonable. America’s sensibilities leading to the Monroe Doctrine were similar.

The Ukraine crisis has reminded us of the limits of diplomacy. The US and its European allies only emboldened Russia by reiterating their strong commitment to diplomacy. It is hardly effective without a credible option to use force.

Ukraine happens to be the first serious international test for the US after Afghanistan. The US, unwilling to get involved militarily, has only warned of dire economic consequences, with little impact so far on Russian President Vladimir Putin. A slip of the tongue by President Joe Biden assured him that even a limited invasion is tolerable. But Putin wants more, and it remains to be seen who will prevail in this game of poker.

Everybody, friends and foes of America alike, watches Washington and sees a feeble administration. The crisis confirms the observed trend of America’s decline in global affairs. As it has in the past, the US could leap out of its lethargy and act forcefully, but the world sees such a scenario as unlikely. And perceptions dictate behavior.

Washington is probably missing an opportunity to reset relations with Moscow and dramatically change the global balance of power. Instead, perhaps the US should enlist Putin to push back against China, America’s true international challenge. It would seem advisable to resolve the US-Russia tensions over Eastern Europe, allowing Washington to focus on its primary challenge. 

The US should entice Russia to rejoin Western civilization. After all, Russia is culturally part of the West in many ways, including its literature, music, ballet, and Christian heritage. In addition, the US could recognize Crimea as Russian territory and lift sanctions against Moscow. 

The West could accept the “Finlandization” of Ukraine to allay Russia’s fears. Moscow tolerated a democratic Finland in the Russian security orbit during the Cold War. Détente with the US might be preferable in Moscow to an embrace by a rising China. Switching sides could signal Russian centrality and prowess in global affairs.  

For Europe, the crisis is an eye-opener. Despite talking about a European army and “strategic autonomy,” Europe still needs an American security umbrella to face a more assertive Russia, also a major energy supplier.

The United States’ behavior in the Ukraine crisis also affects the nuclear talks in Vienna. Tehran, already convinced that the US is weak, gets even greater leeway and can further procrastinate until an agreement it desires will be offered. Iran could unleash its proxies against American allies in the Middle East.

Israel could decide to avoid notifying Washington before acting forcefully. A Russian victory in Europe could precipitate a conflagration in the Middle East.

Similarly, China could learn that US determination is melting away, and its threats can be ignored. An attack on Taiwan could follow.  

The Ukraine predicament again demonstrates the uselessness of international guarantees. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by the Russian Federation, the UK and the US, provided security assurances against threats or force against the territorial integrity of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan in exchange for giving up their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the memorandum was not respected when Russia took over Crimea in 2014.

International institutions failed similarly. The US called a UN Security Council meeting to discuss Moscow’s troop buildup on its borders with Ukraine, knowing that Russia holds veto power. In Washington, this so-called “preventive diplomacy” ended in futile angry clashes between Russian and American envoys.

Ukrainians probably realize that we all still live in a Hobbesian world where every state is on its own and life is often “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Professor Efraim Inbar is president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.