Daniel Larison has already responded to Ross Douthat’s weekend column about how to  approach Russia in a “no-illusions” manner, but I wanted to add a couple of cents.

First of all, I think the overall orientation of Douthat’s column is exactly right: the illusions of liberal internationalism and hawkish neo-conservatism were congruent – sufficiently so that both the Russians and we ourselves sometimes had trouble telling them apart. And I think his conclusion is strong as well: we need a realistic response, one that recognizes Russian’s revisionism and the real limits to our power to respond.

But a realistic response also needs to be clear-headed about what our interests actually are here. From Douthat’s column, I sense an underlying assumption that the two illusory programs were intended to advance American interests, but, because they were based on illusions, could not succeed. That is to say: it would be good for America if Russia were to become a “normal” country and good for America if we expanded our “sphere of influence” into places like Georgia and Ukraine, but we miscalculated what was possible. I think he’s right about the limits of the possible, but the implicit assumption – that our original objectives were even in our interests – needs to be examined.

Let’s take the second goal. Assuming we’re going to accept terms like “sphere of influence,” what would be the advantage to America of expanding ours into Ukraine? A Ukrainian manpower contribution to NATO? The economic benefits of greater trade with Ukraine? Diplomatic support for American initiatives? None of these is obviously of substantial benefit. Meanwhile, we (or, more correctly, the European Union) would take on the burden of Ukraine’s substantial political and economic deficits.

Assuming the goal of expanding NATO and the EU eastward isn’t specifically to weaken Russia, then – which I’ll assume for the sake of argument – the purpose would primarily be to improve the political and economic situation in Ukraine, which would then have ancillary benefits for us and our allies in terms of both avoiding the costs of instability on the edge of Europe (refugees, the need for humanitarian assistance, the possibility of being dragged into an actual conflict) and reaping the benefits of trade with a more prosperous partner.

The rather unfavorable offer that the EU made to Ukraine prior to the crisis strongly suggests that our European partners didn’t think these benefits were worth the costs. And since the collateral benefits of a successful “expansion” would accrue primarily to them, why would we want to pay more than they would? Other than to gratify us with the sheer size of our “sphere,” why would we want to add Ukraine?

Now, the first goal – the “normalization” of Russia - would certainly be in American interests, inasmuch as a revisionist power is necessarily some degree of threat to all status-quo powers. But I don’t see why “normalcy” requires submission to an American-led security architecture. A Russia analogous to South Africa or Brazil, that sought to play a positive regional role but kept aloof from or even actively questioned America’s grander pretensions, would presumably qualify for “normalcy.” And such an end-game would seem to be far more “realistic” than assuming Russia would ever become an outright supporter of American hegemony.

Moreover, it would arguably be better-congruent with our interests. Again, even assuming Russia would ever consider subordination to an American-led global security architecture (unlikely), that implies that we would undertake the responsibility for assuring that Russia’s legitimate grievances were addressed satisfactorily, and would implicate us in its handling of its own internal problems. It’s clear to me why we would want Russia to handle these matters the way we would prefer, but it’s not clear to me why we would want the responsibility for assuring that they would be so handled. If we don’t have a good reason for taking on Ukraine as the next Italy, why would we want to take on Russia?

What all of that adds up to is to say that prior to the intervention in Crimea, America’s primary interest with respect to Russia was surely in avoiding a resumption of international tension between Russia and the West, such as is now taking place. We had many other secondary interests – assistance in pursuing our war against al Qaeda, stability in the energy markets, cooperation in reaching a verifiable negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear program, mediation of the Syrian civil war, etc. And we had some interests that would have conflicted with Russia’s, including an interest in establishing the international norm that “spheres of influence” as such are an outdated concept incompatible with allowing all states sovereign freedom of action (which is not the same thing as saying that NATO should expand to include any country we like). But what is happening now is surely what we most wanted to avoid.

Now that it is upon us, though, our interests are somewhat different. Nobody should have been surprised that Russia was unwilling to simply sit back and accept the overthrow of the Ukrainian government. I wasn’t terribly surprised by direct Russian intervention either – Russia had done much the same in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Trans-dniestria, and Serbia had done much the same in the various wars associated with the breakup of Yugoslavia. But the hastily-organized and highly questionable referendum and annexation have raised the stakes considerably. Russia’s legal position is extremely weak. The Crimea was transferred to Ukraine entirely legally per the law that prevailed in the Soviet Union; Russia agreed to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine when the Soviet Union broke up; and secession should properly require not only a referendum but a negotiated agreement with the parent country (as was the case with the breakup of Czechoslovakia, and will be the case if Belgium, Canada, Spain, the UK or any other Western country perpetually at risk of splitting finally takes the plunge). If the annexation of Crimea is accepted, then the entire post-Cold War settlement is up for forcible revision. Given that our primary interest is the region is in the maintenance of stability and order, we should not be sanguine about that prospect.

The issue, then, isn’t how to “punish” Russia – we’re not Russia’s nanny. Ideally, what we’d want to do is walk back some of the decisions that got us where we are now. Unfortunately, I don’t see a viable way to do that. In theory, Ukraine could agree to allow Crimea to separate for a price (I think it would be sensible for them to do that), and for Russia to agree to allow a new referendum to be conducted under independent international auspices (I think it would be sensible for them to do that as well), which would pave the way for a legitimate separation from Ukraine. But neither of those things is likely to happen. Ukraine isn’t going to ask for or accept a bribe; the new government is nationalist in orientation and to do so would undermine the basis of their authority. Russia isn’t going to offer a bribe – they already have Crimea, so why would they pay for it? – and they aren’t going to accept the principal that outsiders picked by the West have any legitimate role in arbitrating the dispute. This is, ultimately, the great cost of the Clinton-Bush years with respect to Russia: the Russians are, very reasonably, convinced that any concessions made to the West will be pocketed, but that anything they get in exchange may be withdrawn at any time.

Given that there’s no obvious way to walk back the annexation, and that accepting the annexation would amount to opening the pandora’s box of wholesale revision of the post-Cold War settlement, I suspect that the real choices are outright war with Russia (which nobody wants) or a persistently high level of tension. But high levels of tension make conflict more likely. Douthat mentions two things that America should not do in response to the situation in Crimea, specifically because they would be provocative: deploy troops to Estonia or send arms to Kyiv. I don’t disagree – but how should we respond if Ida-Viru (which is over 70% Russian, and which contains over a third of Estonia’s Russian population, and also most of Estonia’s natural resources, such as they are) starts talking about seceding from Estonia, with Russian encouragement? How should we respond if outright civil war erupts in Ukraine and Russia moves in to “keep the peace”? Those are not rhetorical questions – we need to know what our answers would be. My point being, “containment” is not a condition of peace.

And deterrence is a fragile thing. Is it really credible that the United States would go to war with Russia over Estonia? Or with China over Taiwan? Ultimately, deterrence is not about making the other side certain of its defeat but uncertain of its victory – sufficiently uncertain to be unwilling to risk war. Which implies, as a corollary, convincing them that peace is safer than war. War over Taiwan remains relatively low-likelihood because China still reasonably believes that it will get Taiwan peacefully at some point in the future. The moment that belief comes under serious question, war becomes much more attractive – but nothing we do then will make it “worth” war with China to defend Taiwan, and the Chinese know that.

In Crimea, Russia decided that war was safer than peace – that if it did not use force, it would be very likely to lose. So it used force. Responding simply by raising the stakes of future conflict heightens the conditions that led Russia to that conclusion in the first place, making further conflict more likely. Responding weakly undermines deterrence directly, and would encourage Russia to see what further gains it can make by boldness. Restoring deterrence without provoking additional conflict will therefore not be easy, because we have to simultaneously raise the cost of further provocations and provide a credible basis for Russia to believe that enough of its interests could be secured without the use of force.

To put it bluntly: there is no good reason ever to expand NATO to include Ukraine. Realism means not only recognizing limits, but setting them. To say that now, though, in the current context, is to confirm to Russia that their approach to Crimea was effective, and should be repeated. Therefore, the objective of our diplomacy  should be to create a context within which saying such a thing is possible again, because it is part of a more general resolution of outstanding issues. And in the meantime, we should expect a persistently higher level of tension in the region.