How Do We Keep Russia In Check?

Over the weekend, Douthat recommended “a more realistic assessment of both Russian intentions (which are plainly more malign than the Obama administration wanted to believe) and Western leverage (which is more limited than Obama’s hawkish critics would like to think)”:

Unless we expect an immediate Russian invasion of Estonia, for instance, we probably don’t need a sweeping NATO redeployment from Germany to the Baltics. Unless we’re prepared to escalate significantly over the fate of eastern Ukraine, we shouldn’t contemplate sending arms and military advisers to the unsteady government in Kiev. Unless we’re prepared to go to war for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we shouldn’t fast-track Georgia’s NATO membership.

In response, Noah Millman asks what our options are:

Given that there’s no obvious way to walk back the annexation, and that accepting the annexation would amount to opening the pandora’s box of wholesale revision of the post-Cold War settlement, I suspect that the real choices are outright war with Russia (which nobody wants) or a persistently high level of tension. But high levels of tension make conflict more likely. Douthat mentions two things that America should not do in response to the situation in Crimea, specifically because they would be provocative: deploy troops to Estonia or send arms to Kyiv. I don’t disagree – but how should we respond if Ida-Viru (which is over 70% Russian, and which contains over a third of Estonia’s Russian population, and also most of Estonia’s natural resources, such as they are) starts talking about seceding from Estonia, with Russian encouragement? How should we respond if outright civil war erupts in Ukraine and Russia moves in to “keep the peace”? Those are not rhetorical questions – we need to know what our answers would be. My point being, “containment” is not a condition of peace.

I suspect that the brutal truth is that we can do very little if Putin continues to act this way.

We haven’t had a major country with nukes invading other countries in order to annex them since, well, 2008, when we did nothing. There is no way that a full-scale war with Russia over its near-abroad is something we can or should contemplate. The key thing, so far as I can see, is keeping the West united, and urging the Europeans to ready economic sanctions that could truly hurt Putin’s grip on power, if he keeps on keeping on. And the latest grim news is that the troops massing on Ukraine’s Eastern border are beginning to seriously worry US intelligence:

American intelligence agencies have told Obama administration officials and key congressional staffers that there is mounting evidence that Russia is putting the pieces in place for an invasion of eastern Ukraine, and that the possibility of an imminent assault cannot be ruled out, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Rogin follows up:

“At this point, they are amassed and they could go at a moment’s notice if Putin gave the go ahead,” the official said. “Don’t do it,” the official added, in a comment directed at Putin.

I’m afraid I’m beginning to fear the worst.