What does Vladimir Putin want? Photographer: Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images
What does Vladimir Putin want? Photographer: Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images

The West faces a dilemma now that Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated his willingness to win at any cost in Ukraine: Does it, too, go all in, or does it admit Putin's de-facto sovereignty over Russia's post-Soviet neighbors? Both options are unpalatable, and the right answer depends on whether Putin plans to go beyond subjugating Ukraine.

"Arm Ukraine or surrender," is the way commentator Ben Judah formulated the Western world's dilemma in the New York Times. "American and British special forces should be dispatched to plant the flag and protect the airports of Kiev and Odessa," he wrote, warning that the alternative is "a surrender, too, for NATO, for Europe and liberal democracy, and for American global leadership."

Making that argument requires certainty that, after clawing back Ukraine, Putin will want to do the same to the Baltic states, and perhaps even to the former Soviet Union's Warsaw Pact satellites. Judah thinks Ukraine is not his final stop. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly warned his European colleagues against "repeating the errors of 1938 in Munich," referring to a pact the U.K. and France made with Hitler, allowing him to carve up Czechoslovakia.

Is Putin, who has so far limited his incursions to the ex-USSR, a Hitler? The answer is a matter of faith and intuition.

If Putin's ambitions are smaller, then letting him win in Ukraine is suddenly not a nightmare scenario. The European Union doesn't need a large, poor country as a member, and accepting Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would be as risky as sending troops to Donetsk now. If Putin stops at turning Ukraine into a powerless buffer state, the West doesn't stand to lose much except prestige points -- and some of the rhetorical advantage that comes with standing up for freedom and democracy.

The West doesn't have an obligation to help establish democracies everywhere, no matter what the cost. The limits of that purview are a matter of choice. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently called on the U.S. to decide "what is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? And how much does the application of these values depend on circumstance?"

The Kremlin is doing its best to signal that it has no ambitions beyond Ukraine. Marat Guelman, a well-connected art dealer and political consultant, recently quoted Vladimir Lukin, a former diplomat Putin has used to negotiate with the nationalists now in power in Kiev, as explaining that Russia's military support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine is meant to show Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko "that he cannot win, ever." Once Poroshenko accepts that, makes a deal with the separatists and accepts Ukraine's role as Russia's dependent state, Putin will be satisfied and will make peace with Europe, if not the U.S. "Russia doesn't want to integrate with anyone but Europe, and Putin is the number one European here," Lukin told Guelman. "We haven't really quarreled with anyone in Europe."

No one in the West can, or should, trust such leaks, given Putin's history of disinformation. Still, no one in Europe is even suggesting a military response. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is talking about further economic sanctions against Russia as if they were enough of a heroic sacrifice. "I believe it is necessary to prepare such sanctions and that possible disadvantages in no way outweigh those resulting from doing nothing," she said last weekend.

Given Putin's disregard for previous sanctions, doing more is the same as doing nothing. Merkel knows by now that even if reluctant governments such as Slovakia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Cyprus can be persuaded to back tougher sanctions, Putin will not withdraw from Ukraine. Merkel either has not yet made her bet on whether Putin is Hitler, or is betting that he isn't. In the latter case, she is merely paying lip service to Western values that circumstances do not warrant applying.

For Poroshenko, every day, every hour counts. He will have to decide whether or not to fold his hand before sanctions have the slightest effect on Russia.

The West, by contrast, has more time to figure out what to make of Putin. It is tacitly repeating the deal it made with Hitler in 1938. The implicit assumption is that if appeasement fails, it ultimately has the power to defeat him.

To contact the writer of this article: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net.