Vladimir Putin, that old KGB apparatchik, is unlikely to halt his campaign to reestablish Russia as the dominant force in Europe. He views power very much in the Old School sense: territory, military force, oil, and money. Chechnya, Georgia, and now Ukraine have all felt the back of his hard hand. Putin believes—no, he knows—the West will not lift a finger to protect the non-NATO states in the Russian “near abroad.” His policy is calculated, not reckless. He will push until forced to back down by real power, not the soft diplomacy exhibited to date by President Obama and European leaders.
However, there is one tangible action President Obama can take in conjunction with NATO to head off the next crisis: station a reinforced U.S. Army heavy brigade combat team in Poland. Poland is the most strategically important (and most economically vibrant) state in the old Soviet bloc. For historical and realpolitik reasons, it is imperative that NATO make Poland secure against Russian pressure and threats. The recent deployment of a battalion of airborne infantry to Poland and the Baltic states is a laughably small gesture that will only embolden Putin to overreach. Putting real capability in Poland on a permanent basis—say, a heavy brigade combat team reinforced by an attack helicopter squadron—would send the kind of message that Putin cannot ignore: NATO is here to stay, and the United States will defend its allies with more than just words and pinprick sanctions.
Had Great Britain and France backed Czechoslovakia in 1938 during the Munich crisis, Germany would most likely not have had the run of success that propelled it to European domination between 1939 and 1942. Putin is no Hitler, but the echoes of Munich reverberate in his actions today. It is time to put an end to Putin’s run, before he causes real damage to the liberal international order that the United States and its allies have expended so much blood and treasure to create and defend.