Putin Can't Have the Last Laugh in Ukraine

Not something Europe wants to see.

Photographer: Anatolian News Agency/AFP/Getty Images

Say this much for Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: His comments Saturday on his country’s role in Ukraine were so absurd that they united Europe. Now the challenge is to turn that laughter and derision into something more constructive.

Speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference, Lavrov said what happened in Crimea last year was simply an act of self-determination according to the United Nations charter, rather than annexation by Russian troops. He then opened himself up to further mockery by suggesting that Crimea’s reunification with Russia was more legitimate than that of East and West Germany in 1990, and that the former Soviet Union had favored German unity after World War II. Even if there is some truth to this, no doubt Stalin would have liked to unify all of Europe in the prison of nations that he formed after 1945.

Standoff in Ukraine

This mix of cynicism, self-delusion and wounded pride is particularly toxic now, with the West in disagreement on its Ukraine policy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is unwilling either to get involved militarily against Russia or to capitulate to it, so she is counseling patience as well as further economic sanctions on Russia. Her colleagues in Europe, however, are unwilling even to go that far.

In the U.S., meanwhile, and in several ex-Soviet-bloc states in Europe, there is growing sentiment to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons in order to counter advances by Russian-supported separatists. Lavrov's delusions effectively undermine the logic of this position. If Russian President Vladimir Putin sees everything that has happened in Ukraine in the last year as part of a U.S. and NATO plot against Russia, then a U.S. or NATO arms program is unlikely to cause him to rethink either his position or his strategy.

That might happen if Putin believed the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization were ready to do whatever it takes to defeat him in Ukraine. But he knows they aren’t.

Part of the problem is that the West is deluding itself, too -- about the level of commitment necessary to drive Russia out of Ukraine. A failure to recognize this could result in the worst of all worlds: a Russian invasion that leaves Ukraine dismembered and deep fissures both within the EU and between the EU and the U.S.

It's easy enough to say that the West needs a unified strategy. What might it look like? Harsher sanctions would be a start, creating a cost for further Russian escalation beyond that already exacted by existing sanctions and cheap oil. A stronger commitment to spend whatever it takes to keep Ukraine financially solvent while defending itself is just as important, accompanied by a promise from Ukraine that it will not join NATO. In return, Putin should be required to withdraw Russian troops, allow an international force to seal the border and accept that Ukraine gets to choose its own government and trading partners.

These are the kinds of issues that should be on the table as representatives from Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine meet later this week in Minsk, Belarus. If the U.S. and Europe instead split over whether to give Ukraine anti-tank weapons, or insist on continuing an unproductive debate about just how warped Lavrov's worldview is, then Putin will get the last laugh.

(Corrects time reference in second paragraph.)

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.