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Opinion | The Ukraine Crisis Is About Much More Than Ukraine

Today, Ukraine is the jewel to fight for. But it won’t end there: Belarus, whose embattled leader relies on Russia’s support, could be the next prize in the geopolitical rivalry — or perhaps it will be Kazakhstan, where popular anger at the corrupt, Russian-backed regime has erupted. The drama is just beginning. Other neighboring countries could become hostages of Russia’s system of survival, which requires external domination for the sake of internal security.

So far, the Kremlin has been extremely lucky, or extraordinarily skilled, in playing a weak hand without aces up its sleeve. It deals with a Western establishment determined to maintain the status quo, even if that means accommodation. After all, the nature of globalization precludes serious containment policy: How can the West deter Russia when it is enmeshed in a web of economic and security ties with the Russian state?

Mr. Putin no doubt senses the advantage. Having dealt with the Western leaders for decades, he seems to have concluded that he can play bully. That the United States quickly agreed to start talks suggests Mr. Putin’s strategy is working: It could take months before Western partners discover that they have been engaged in an exchange of hot air.

They are clearly yet to work out how to respond to the Kremlin’s policy of suspense. By forcing the world to guess what Russia is up to and pursuing mutually contradictory policy lines simultaneously, the Kremlin keeps the West disoriented. Accustomed to functioning in rational, risk-averse ways, the West doesn’t know how to react to such “organized chaos.”

There are several traps into which Russia and the West could fall. The kind of sanctions the Biden administration is reportedly considering could be devastating for the Russian state and its elites, which are integrated into the West. And ordinary Russians are not going to sacrifice their living standards indefinitely for wars and antagonism. According to the independent Levada Center, in 2021 only 32 percent of Russians wanted to see Russia as “a great power respected and feared by other countries,” and just 16 percent thought the war could raise Mr. Putin’s authority. The patriotic drug of militarism has started to wear off.

There is a Catch-22 for the West, too: Any bargain that would allow the Kremlin to interpret the global rules of the game would undermine Western principles. Yet rejecting the bargain could incite the Kremlin to wreck the whole shop. The world’s liberal democracies are hardly ready for a clash with a nuclear opponent.

This is a deadlock, and there appears to be no way out. Both sides continue to play “who blinks first”: America and its allies have set out to reassure Ukraine of their support, while Russia has kept the hammer of military deployment ready. A meeting in Moscow on Thursday between representatives of Russia, France and Germany made little headway. Negotiations begin in earnest next week, as Russia and America — later joined by NATO members — aim to find the areas where agreement is possible and where it isn’t.

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