Back in February Oxford's Timothy Garton Ash, arguably the wisest interpreter of events in Eastern Europe, observed that the future of Putin, Russia and Europe was at stake in Ukraine.
In the months that have followed, Russia annexed Crimea, Ukraine elected a new president, fighting intensified in the southeast, and Russia intervened militarily to save from defeat the secessionists it sponsored and supported.
Throughout the crisis the standard view has been that Russia's Vladimir Putin is solely to blame for Ukraine's partial dissolution. U.S.-Russia relations -- already soured by the animus between their presidents -- have worsened. A new cold war seems to be underway.
But some specialists, fearful of where events may be headed, are breaking from the standard narrative.
University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer is among the most respected of the American dissenters. In a provocative article in the September/October Foreign Affairs, Mearsheimer invokes realpolitik, positing that the west is to blame for Ukraine's agony by having brought NATO too near the gates of the Kremlin.
Dismissing the assertion that Russia is the aggressor, Mearsheimer excoriates western leaders for failing to heed Moscow's warnings in 2008 that formerly Soviet Georgia and Ukraine occupied a vital security zone that Moscow would not allow to be breached. Big powers, he says, have vital interests that must be respected.
Mersheimer writes, "the tap root of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia's orbit and integrate it into the West." He continues, "for Putin the illegal overthrow of Ukraine's democratically elected and pro-Russian president -- which he rightly labeled a "coup" -- was the final straw. He responded by taking Crimea, a peninsula he feared would host a NATO naval base, and working to destabilize Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West."
To defuse the crisis Mearsheimer calls on President Obama to reverse course and acknowledge that Ukraine will not become a NATO member, remaining instead a neutral buffer between Russia and Europe.
Former Swedish diplomat Anders Aslund, the Russia specialist at Washington's Peterson Institute for International Economics, dismisses Mearsheimer's embrace of realpolitik, accusing the Chicago scholar of "denying countries their right to self-defense or to join NATO." Mearsheimer's article, he says, "shows contempt for democracy, national sovereignty, and international law."
But it's not only Mearsheimer asserting that Russia has legitimate security concerns on its western border. British historian Robert Skidelsky argues that in the post-cold war period the West made a serious mistake by refusing to concede any form of regional hegemony to Russia.
"Rather," Skidelsky writes in Project Syndicate, "under the banner of democracy and human rights, the West actively sought to pry the ex-Soviet countries from Russia's orbit." These thrusts, he argues, "undoubtedly inspired Russian paranoia, reflected today in Kremlin-fuelled conspiracy theories about Ukraine."
Former adversaries Polish Nobel Prize winner Lech Walesa and Mikhail Gorbachev, critical players in the collapse of European communism whose 25th anniversary will be celebrated in November, similarly urge caution. Walesa warns of nuclear confrontation and counsels Europe to go slow on ratcheting up punitive Russian sanctions.
Gorbachev says the mostly peaceful world order in place since the collapse of communism is at risk. He implores presidents Putin and Obama to put aside their differences and open high level talks to craft a Ukraine solution.
Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University, says there are three possible outcomes to the Ukraine crisis: 1/escalating civil war that draws in Russian and possibly NATO forces. This worst outcome, he says, could resemble a latter-day Cuban missile crisis; 2/ de facto partitioning with western Ukraine allied with the west and its eastern regions with Russia; and 3/ the preservation of a unified decentralized Ukraine, unaffiliated with any military alliance, its territorial integrity guaranteed by the US, Russia and the European Union.
Mearsheimer says in 2008 Russia put its foot down on further NATO expansion but the west didn't acknowledge the depth of Russia's conviction. At its Bucharest summit that year the defense alliance stopped just short of putting Ukraine and Georgia on track to membership. Months later Russia waged war against Georgia's pro-western government, a conflict whose timing he believes was not coincidental.
George Kennan, the eminent diplomat who in 1947 devised Washington's policy of containing Soviet expansion, opposed provoking post-communist Russia. In 1996 -- three years before NATO admitted Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary -- Kennan warned that NATO expansion into former Soviet territory was a "strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions."
In retrospect it seems Kennan was wrong as far as the three Baltic states and central Europe is concerned. NATO membership has provided those countries with the security they so urgently sought in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. For them Russia's intervention in Ukraine confirms their worst fears about Kremlin intentions.
But Ukraine is another matter. Timothy Garton Ash observes that not too many centuries ago the original Russians inhabited what is today's Ukraine, the place where the Russian orthodox church was founded. To uninitiated Americans and Europeans Russians and Ukrainians appear indistinguishable. Unlike the Baltics and central Europe, Ukraine was never independent before 1991.
In calling for restraint and dialogue Skidelsky argues, "the goal of Western policy today should be to find the means to work with Russia to stop Ukraine from being torn apart."