Insightful Russia analyst and journalist Ben Judah recently wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled "Arm Ukraine or Surrender" that has been getting a lot of attention.
However, Judah's article makes a series of false assumptions, which are important to reconsider due to the consensus developing among many about the dire need to take Putin on militarily.
Judah writes that allowing the Kremlin to successfully carve out a South Ossetia like statelet in eastern Ukraine would be a "crushing defeat for the West" for the following three reasons:
Judah: "Russia would have restored itself as an empire — the former Soviet Union once more under the sway of the Kremlin. The West would thus concede, in effect, that Russia may invade or annex any of these territories as it pleases. And in these lands, the appeasers would flourish, and democracy wilt."
Putin gaining control of a devastated and depopulated swath of eastern Ukraine is hardly equivalent to the restoration of an empire, especially when this relatively unimportant gain has come at such a cost.
By failing to arm Ukraine, the West would also not "concede that Russia may invade or annex any [ex-Soviet] territories as it pleases." The West has not and will not formally accept the Russian annexation of Crimea, and Washington and Brussels have hit Russia with serious economic sanctions that are expected to be significantly intensified within the coming week.
Granted, sanctions have been unable to stop Putin on the ground in Ukraine, but the effect the sanctions will ultimately have on the Russian economy, and the effect they are already having, is another story. And in the bigger picture, the health of the Russian economy is a much more important strategic factor than who controls a devastated sliver of Ukraine which most officials in Washington and Brussels would have been hard pressed to identify on a map before the crisis began.
Also, Russia would not then be able to "invade or annex any [ex-Soviet] territories as it pleases." Ukraine has put up a real fight and any other country Putin tried to grab land from would do the same. Such an assumption is misleading: for example, a successful land grab by the Kremlin in Georgia in 2008 has not meant Ukrainians have let Putin do as he pleased six years later in their country.
Judah: "Russia would have triumphed over the world order imposed by the West after the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. This would mean the destruction of American geopolitical deterrence. America’s enemies, from China to Iran, would see this as an invitation to establish their own spheres of influence amid the wreckage."
This argument is misleading in light of recent history. For example, Putin used the Russian military to change borders in Georgia and establish two statelets in 2008 and this did not overturn the world order or spur Iran or China to launch reckless invasions of other countries. Neither did Kosovo's independence from Serbia or the US invasion of Iraq, for example.
Further, Iran and China and all big regional powers always have and always will strive to "establish their own spheres of influence" regardless of what happens in eastern Ukraine.
Judah: "Russia would not stop there. Mr. Putin wants to undermine NATO, and the smell of weakness would tempt him further. It would be merely a matter of time before Moscow exploited the Russians in the Baltic States to manufacture new 'frozen conflicts.' Poland would feel compelled to act as though NATO did not exist, creating a defensive military alliance of its own with the Baltics; it might even establish a buffer zone in western Ukraine."
Russian military invasion of a NATO member would be a completely different situation than Putin's interference in Ukraine, a country that is not a NATO member.
NATO has long been a backbone of Western security and any military attack on a NATO member would play very differently in Washington and Brussels than the Russian interference in Ukraine has. The Russian military has looked good beating up on poor Ukraine, but any attack on a NATO member would be met with a devastating counter.
Further, Baltic populations are much more hostile to and wary of Moscow than Ukrainians were before the current crisis turned most of them against Russia.
The idea of a successful Russian military invasion and land grab in Poland or the Baltics is more a product of the current anti-Putin hysteria than any real future threat.
I raise these points not to single out Ben Judah, who is an excellent journalist and analyst, but rather to place the current Ukraine crisis in perspective.
In my opinion, many Russia analysts are understandably caught up in the emotions of the moment and overstating the importance of the current crisis to Western strategic interests.
The war is, of course, an existential question for Ukraine. However, the battle over Ukraine's east is not fundamentally different from past Russian meddling in Georgia or Moldova or potential future Russian interference in Kazakhstan. All such events in the former Soviet Union are relatively unimportant to core Western concerns.
What is more, while Putin appears big and bad at the moment, in many ways he may be utterly undermining his own strategic interests and his very hold on power in the longer term.
The economic downturn already set in motion because of Ukraine could ultimately bring down his regime, and the mounting body bag count could accelerate this.
Ukraine, even minus a chunk of its land in the east, could now turn to the EU and NATO for the long run. A successful transition could then inspire other former Soviet countries to make the same choice. This brutal rupture of the Ukraine-Russia bond may become one of the darkest parts of Putin's legacy.
Moreover, Putin's overreach in Ukraine could destroy any chances of the Eurasian Economic Union leading to some form of political or military integration as Moscow hopes it will. The EEU itself could fall apart if the sanctions war continues and Kazakhstan and Belarus tire of taking economic hits due to Russian aggression.
Further, the Ukraine crisis could be what finally spurs the EU to move seriously to diversify its gas supply, which would become a major problem for the Russian state.
Events like MH17 have already made the Putin regime a Western pariah and Russophobism and NATO will be invigorated for years because of the Ukraine crisis.
Asia, and especially China, are certainly not going to rally around Russia if it affects their economic ties with the West and Beijing could move to distance itself from Moscow if the sanctions war spirals further out of control.
In total, a step back from the emotions of the moment shows Russia to be a paper bear more than anything along the lines of a "restored empire" threatening to deal the West a "crushing defeat."
Getting too scared about Putin and making decisions based on any such false assumptions could be dangerous.