It is possible that Putin himself does not know today what steps, if any, he might take next week regarding Ukraine. What he knows for certain is that even an all-out Russian Anschluß of the country will not trigger a Western military response because Ukraine is a country that balances uneasily between the Russian East and the West. It is not a member of NATO, and Putin may well hope – at some future point – to seize it. In the late nineties NATO membership of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary was considered. Opponents in Washington argued that such a step was certain to provoke a serious military reaction by the Russians. Yet when it took place, the Kremlin did nothing and the public barely noticed. The same happened later when other East European and former Soviet-bloc countries joined the alliance.
Commentators seek to apportion blame for the present conflict between Moscow, Kyiv, Brussels, and Washington. In fact the real culprit is the lack of clarity as to whether Ukraine belongs to Europe or to Russia. Putin would not have moved into Crimea if it had been NATO territory. The lesson from the current crisis is that good fences make good neighborhoods. An empty zone between blocs is destabilizing as each side is tempted to move into it. Taking the first steps toward eventual NATO membership for Ukraine may now be seen as provocative. But consider how much worse a crisis we would be facing if Poland and the Baltic countries had not been in the defensive alliance and Putin’s tanks were concentrated not along the borders of eastern Ukraine but Estonia and Latvia. It took a vision informed by centuries of history and courage for Western leaders to invite them. The same should be done for Ukraine.
—Igor Lukes is a Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, specializing in Central European History, East European Politics, Contemporary Russia.