Surprise is the least forgivable sin of statecraft. Yet nothing has so characterized the Ukraine crisis as the West’s continuing surprise at Russia’s behavior.
The past 30 days have provided almost daily reminders of the deep disconnect between Western expectations of what statecraft would — and ought to — look like in the 21st century, and the reality of how the Kremlin seeks to assert its interests in the world.
From the outset of this crisis, the West consistently underestimated the strategic significance of Ukraine, and Crimea, to Russia. The West also assumed that the threat, and subsequent reality, of economic sanctions would alter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic calculus. One month later, Russia has irreversibly annexed a region of Ukraine and left the West divided and floundering in its response.
That Putin may have won a short-term victory at the cost of a long-term defeat by setting every European country on a path to energy independence from Russia should be small comfort to the United States and European leaders meeting in Brussels this week.
If this were merely a matter of misreading the moves and motivations of a declining great power whose economic vulnerabilities are as severe as they are structural, the annexation of Crimea could be considered a mere geopolitical nuisance. At its root, however, this failure is rooted in a dangerous vanity about the West’s inevitable dominance — and an illusion about a global acceptance of its norms and forms of economic and political governance.