Staunton, June 15 – In Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is acting either as a failed state that cannot control the movement of heavy military equipment by independent groups across its borders or as a state sponsor of terrorism by such groups or an aggressor state that has invaded a neighboring sovereign state – or most likely as some combination of the three.
There are no other possibilities, however much the Putin regime seeks to confuse the situation and however much some Western governments want to accept Moscow’s obfuscation lest they be forced to make the hard choices required if they were to acknowledge this reality and the dangers it represents.
Although it is the least likely at least in a pure form, the possibility that Russia has become a failed state is far and away the most frightening. To understand why, it is necessary to remember that a failed state is not one on which there are no powerful institutions but rather a territory on which there is no central control.
That combination is often forgotten, but it shouldn’t be. In Somalia, for example, there were powerful militant groups but no central government worthy of the name; and it was the presence of the former and the absence of the latter that ultimately led to the humiliation and withdrawal of American forces.
If Russia were to become again a failed state – and it certainly displayed elements of that status in the 1990s – the challenge to the world would be enormous. Not only is the Russian Federation far larger and more economically important than any other failed state has ever been, but it has an enormous arsenal, including nuclear weapons.
However, if one accepts Moscow’s claims that the militants in southeastern Ukraine are getting arms from Russia and that the Russian government has nothing to do with that, no other conclusion is possible. From that it follows that Russia is moving in the direction of state failure because it is unable or unwilling to control powerful institutions on its territory.
Overcoming that condition will be difficult if not impossible from the outside because any Western action almost certainly would exacerbate rather than minimize some aspects of state failure on a scale no one has ever faced before. But acting as if this danger doesn’t exist, while accepting Moscow’s claims that it is not directly involved, will only exacerbate the problem.
The second possibility — that Moscow has become a state sponsor of terrorism — seems more likely. If one views the situation in this way, then Moscow is sending militants onto the territory of a foreign state and arming them and their local supporters so that they can engage in the kind of violence intended to destabilize the situation.
That fits most of the facts on the ground over the past weeks, as Ukrainian analysts have pointed out. It means that Russia has transformed itself into an international outcast that must be isolated and contained until it changes course, and it means that the Ukrainian authorities have every right to counter terrorism backed by Russia and that they should be assisted in this task by other governments.
The third possibility – that Russia is engaged in classical aggression – is clearly now the most likely. Initially, Moscow did so covertly or at least covertly enough for many Western leaders to deny the need to take steps to repel it. But with the dispatch of Russian heavy armor across the Ukrainian border and the shooting down of Ukrainian planes in recent days, the Russian invasion is no longer covert.
What the world sees instead is a Russian war of aggression, as unpleasant as it is for anyone especially in the West to admit, because to acknowledge that is to recognize that other countries have an obligation not just to denounce but to stop this aggression lest by inaction they unintentionally encourage Putin to engage in more aggression elsewhere.
Combatting any and all of these three phenomena won’t be easy: their consequences, especially in combination, are larger than many can imagine. But not combatting them — and even worse not acknowledging their existence — opens the door to a more violent and vicious world, one that hardly will be blocked by suggestions the West will “raise the costs” of Russian action.
Putin may be willing and even able to pay such imposed “costs” given both the direness of his own situation and that of his country and the imperatives of what he has already done. The only way forward is to confront, contain and ultimately defeat him, a challenge that tragically seems beyond the imagination or the capacity of the West today.