Nobody wants to die for Donetsk, but much more is at stake for the West than just Ukraine's borders. In the face of Vladimir Putin's ambitions, it's time to ask the hard questions.
PARIS — A fragile ceasefire does nothing to change the challenge we must face in Ukraine: How to contain the revisionist instincts of an ex-empire that mixes humiliation with a clever mix of cunning and brutality?
When it comes to the Ukranian crisis, it's easy to enumerate the failings of the European Union and the United States. In many respects, economic sanctions are a "Potemkin village," stricly aesthetic and ineffective. They themselves cannot dissuade Moscow. We appeal to an economic nationality when Putin himself is draped behind a nationalism equally anachronistic and skittish. What good is reason when faced with passion, especially when it is backed by all kinds of propaganda?
There is an utter imbalance between the arms that we brandish, sanctions, and the nature of the crisis. But this divorce is a reflection of our embarrassment, the reality of our powerlessness and — even more importantly, for the majority of the countries in the European Union and for the U.S. — our lack of interest.
Nobody wants to die for Donetsk, or Odessa, or even for Kiev. As part of the Cold War, in the aftermath of the invasion of Prague by Soviet forces, our policy was "to do nothing, of course," even though the Soviet threat was seen as the primary danger. Today, the adversaries largely have their eyes turned elsewhere.
Doesn't the threat of Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and Africa affect us more directly? Russia, like the USSR of yesteryear, recruits agents of influence in our own camps, but not terrorist apprentices who are like a sinister version of the "International Brigades" that is no longer that of anarchy, but that of barbarism.
In this context, our divisions are too deep, our interest too distant, and our fears too great. Just watch the European news. In France, we talk first and foremost about the crisis here at home, and in Britain about Scotland and the independence referendum. Only Germany and Poland dedicate headlines to the crisis in the east — history and geography oblige!
"What do you want? We're not going to go to war with Russia for Ukraine!"
I recently found myself at a university roundtable debate with certain stakeholders who were focused primarily on the fact that "Ukraine is not our problem," and secondly on "the close ties between Russia and Europe." Such is the fundamental difference that exists between Europe and the United States on this question.
Certainly nothing would be worse than promising Ukraine something that we cannot deliver. There is no consensus in Europe today on the entrance of Ukraine into the European Union, and even less so on NATO, even if Moscow does everything it can to convince us to change our position. There's also no consensus on providing Ukraine with arms, even if the threat of arms would be necessary in tough political negotiations with Putin.
We are not condemned to impotence and resignation in the face of Moscow's divide-and-conquer strategy of Soviet times, if not the one used by Nazi Germany before 1939. After Georgia and Ukraine, who next? Certain commentators go as far as to say that Russia dreams of returning to the borders of Europe before 1989.
The situation won't be so hopeless if we demonstrate clear thinking, imagination and a minimum of courage to fight against the propaganda and systematic falsehood coming out of Moscow. Russia is waging a "hybrid" war in Ukraine, with "volunteers" that have all of the qualities of army regiments — arms included — with the exception of uniforms.
Reinforcing the protection of the Baltic States and the other NATO members in central and eastern Europe is the least we can expect of NATO countries. NATO decisions must be implemented in the field.
Putin condemns us with his Cold War attitude, so it's necessary for us to engage in time to face a regime that offers us no choice. But even more so than the USSR of years past, this is a regime much weaker than it wants to project. Moscow could, for a time, satisfy nationalism first by nibbling on bits of Georgia and then Ukraine. But if it wants to keep "unraveling" the system of security that has been in place in Europe since 1991, Putin must realize that he risks finding himself alone, with a faltering economy.
Has the European Union finally realized what's at stake? It is not just a question of the fact that survival of the fittest doesn't apply on the continent of Europe.
Contrary to what some might say, Ukraine is our problem, and it may even be the central problem of Europe today, given the rise of populism. In both cases, what's at stake is the future of democracy, inside and outside of the EU.