The standoff between Russia and the West is not quite what it seems.
First, it is not global. Unlike the Cold War, Russia and Western nations continue to co-operate in parts of the world where they have common interests. The joint U.S.-Russian action to remove chemical weapons from Syria is a prime example.
Second, the West is far from united. It may suit Western leaders to say Russian actions in Ukraine pose the gravest threat to Europe in decades. But clearly it isn’t grave enough to convince Western Europeans — or the Americans for that matter — to cut economic ties with Russia.
Germany still imports Russian oil and gas. France is forging ahead with plans to sell Russia advanced naval vessels. Britain has not excluded Russian banks from the City of London.
Third, rhetoric aside, Western nations have tacitly accepted that Russian President, Vladimir Putin has a free hand in Ukraine.
U.S. President Barack Obama made that clear last week when he said he would not go to war over Ukraine. Ukraine, he noted pointedly, is not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and is therefore not covered by NATO’s collective security obligations.
These days, almost no one talks about Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea. Like Israel’s unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967, Russian actions in Crimea — while officially decried — are, in practice, accepted.
Should Putin seize more of Eastern Ukraine, there will be more tough words from the West. There will almost certainly be no serious military response.
Put simply, the U.S., Germany and France have no interest in going to war over Eastern Ukraine, an area that — until recent times — was an integral part of Russia.
This dynamic might change if Ukraine fractures. Western Ukraine has historic ties to Poland and Hungary. But right now, most Western nations see Ukraine as lying, in part, within Russia’s legitimate sphere of influence.
Fourth, NATO is drawing a new line in the sand. In effect, the alliance is saying to Putin: Yes, you may have your way with Ukraine, but that’s it. No more.
From this comes the call for a new rapid response force. NATO already is able to deliver troops to a hot spot within five days. The alliance is now proposing a force that could react within two days.
This is designed to allay the fears of NATO members such as Latvia and Estonia, which border Russia.
It is also designed to circumvent NATO’s 1997 pledge not to establish permanent bases in Eastern Europe.
Under the new plan, the alliance won’t exactly have permanent bases near Russia. But it will set up permanent supply depots filled with armaments that can be used by its rapid response teams.
Not surprisingly, Russia is unimpressed by these subtle distinctions.
Fifth, the new tension suits forces on both sides. In Russia, it boosts the hand of ultranationalists around Putin who view the dismantling of the old Soviet Union as a historic mistake.
In the West, it gives NATO’s military bureaucracy a new purpose.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the alliance has been trying to justify its existence.
At times it portrayed itself as a kind of international policeman, bombing Serbia in 1999 and Libya in 2011. In Afghanistan, it led an ill-starred war against the Taliban.
Now, thanks to the Ukrainian crisis it can return to its original mission — containing Russia.
As long as Moscow can be portrayed as a threat, there will be no talk of downsizing or dismantling NATO’s Brussels-based bureaucracy.
For Western politicians, the crisis has mixed effects. To U.S. President Barack Obama, it is a curse. As the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, he is expected to do something to dissuade Russia. But he knows that, militarily, there is little practical that he can do.
To Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the crisis is a blessing. He publicly excoriates Putin as an aggressor. Yet no one expects Harper to send Canadian troops into battle in Eastern Ukraine. Indeed, Canadian defence spending overall remains below NATO standards.
In short, the prime minister can engage in cheap talk. For a politician, this is ideal.