Emotions are running high this week--in Ukraine, in Russia, across Europe, and in Washington. It is said that no one should make an important decision in the heat of anger. Putin has already made that mistake. Europe's leaders should not follow his lead.
First, consider the scale of the Russian president's miscalculation. Putin's grand dream and the prime directive of Russian foreign policy is to create something that he calls the «Eurasian Union.» From Moscow's point of view, Russia is far too important a country to simply join the EU, as if Russia were Poland or the Czech Republic. Putin means for Russia to create its own union, a reconstituted Russian empire founded on the political and economic system now in place in Russia. The grand dream is off to a slow start. To date, Russia has managed to assemble only a customs union involving Kazakhstan and Belarus, both of which are reluctant to deepen political ties with the Kremlin.
This is the importance of Ukraine. In 1991, Russians understood that without Ukraine, these was no Soviet Union. Today, without Ukraine, there is no Eurasian Union, no empire worthy of the name. Herein lies Putin's mistake. No one in Ukraine under the age of 28 can remember the USSR. Four months ago, even four weeks ago, many younger Ukrainians might have had mixed feelings about Moscow. They might not have liked Putin personally, but Ukraine's need for inexpensive Russian natural gas and other forms of subsidy might have created a pragmatic attitude toward Kiev's need for good relations with Moscow.
Not anymore. From the moment that Russians wearing ski masks and carrying automatic rifles arrived on Crimean streets, Putin alienated an entire generation of Ukrainians, the very people he needs to see the value of membership in a Russian-led political and economic union that might counterbalance the EU. More than 75 percent of Ukrainian citizens are ethnic Ukrainians. Less than 20 percent are ethnic Russians. Putin can impose his will in Crimea. He can frustrate Kiev's ability to maintain firm control of the country's eastern provinces, those areas where there are as many ethnic Russians as Ukrainians. He can try to use natural gas supplies as a diplomatic weapon. But he will not persuade the vast majority of Ukraine's citizens that their future is not in Europe but with Russia. Putin's determination to assert himself in the short term will have the most serious long-term consequences for Russia's ability to achieve its most important foreign policy objective.
How should Europe (and America) respond? Not by targeting Moscow but by helping Kiev. If Ukraine is to one day realize its European potential, it will have to undertake the far-reaching economic reforms that successive Ukrainian governments have avoided. European governments, the United States, and the International Monetary Fund can help by providing the financing needed to help the most vulnerable of Ukraine's citizens to weather this transition. A promised $15 billion aid package from Europe represents a solid start. But this is a long-term commitment, one that will strengthen Europe by helping Ukraine reach its potential. In 1990, Ukraine's economy was larger than Poland's. After 23 years in Russia's cold shadow, Ukraine's per capita income is less than one third that of Poland. This country of 45 million people has unrealized potential that can one day bolster Europe. In the nearer term, Europe can help Kiev prepare for free and fair elections on May 25.
Europe needs pragmatic relations with Russia. No one benefits from a deepening antagonism between the two sides. But there is much that Europe's leaders and institutions can do to help Ukraine and all its people. Perhaps that's the key to bringing about long-term change in Russia itself.
*Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of «Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World.» You may follow him on Twitter @ianbremmer.