47° Good Morning
47° Good Morning

Goldmark: Being firm against Putin not that easy

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, on May 5, 2014. Credit: Getty Images / Mikahil Klimentyev

In Ukraine, there's chaos. In Russia, Vladimir Putin, a shrewd master of strategy, appears to be riding a wave of popularity as he aims to expand Russian territory and influence. And in Western Europe, there is disarray.

The United States has imposed economic sanctions on Russia. European countries have not joined that course of action wholeheartedly, declining to act with the United States in imposing sanctions on Russian companies.

"Europe has a completely different relationship with Russia than the U.S.," said Stefan Meister, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "It is much more economically interdependent with Russia . . . We still have [an economic] crisis in Europe, and every country will look for its own interests, and every country has a veto."

In one European poll less than half of those interviewed supported sanctions against Russia.

Chaos and confusion in foreign affairs often present the opportunity for big mistakes. And the blunders can have dangerous consequences when militias, self-appointed gangs and nationalistic passions are involved. It is ironic that the chaos in Ukraine is erupting on the 100th anniversary of the lead-in to World War I.

The lessons of history are simple to recite but difficult to apply:

Lesson one: Make sure you have the facts on the ground right. It is axiomatic in such situations that initial "information" will be incomplete, and sometimes just plain wrong.

Lesson two: Don't assume you understand the intentions or reasoning of other parties. Under rapidly changing circumstances, intentions often change. In the run-up to World War I, for instance, the major powers miscalculated what the other parties would do. The price of that misjudgment was slaughter and economic ruin. (Also, don't assume that local "allies" will act as you think allies "should" act.)

Lesson three: Communicate clearly and send critical messages through multiple channels (in this case to Putin). Send the identical message through several channels so that there's little chance that it would be misinterpreted; the recipient will be confident he understands the message, whether he likes its content or not.

And it is always wise to be extremely cautious when two powers with nuclear weapons are on opposite ends of a military tussle, no matter how unlikely it may seem that nuclear weapons would be used.

Ukraine is a dangerously volatile situation. Putin is popular at home for his actions on behalf of Russians in the "near abroad" -- as many Russians call Eastern Europe -- while militias and street gangs are becoming more unpredictable. Complicating matters is that the only Western organization that can oppose Russia is NATO, and the western European members of NATO are not united on how to respond to Ukraine's crisis.

President John F. Kennedy taught us the wisdom of combining firmness with restraint during the Cuban missile crisis. President Barack Obama has been right to be restrained in his response to Putin's aggression. It will be hard for the United States to be firm about a struggle between unruly forces on a continent whose most powerful members have not decided how firm they want to be against Russian power.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.