Paul Pillar responds to McCain’s claim that Putin views things entirely in “zero-sum” terms:

While he is doing such thinking, [Putin] also sees how domestic Russian politics have been working to his benefit in a traditional rally-round-the-flag way in response to this crisis and to how the Russian regime and media have been spinning it. The tough Putin we see is surely responding more to this political dynamic than acting out delusions about zero-sum competition with the West. The West does have an interest in this dynamic, but it is not the one Senator McCain is talking about. We have an interest in not encouraging and empowering the sort of elements within Russia that would welcome a new Cold War. Unfortunately a zero-sum, Cold War-like reaction from our side may already be tending to do that [bold mine-DL]. The Center for the National Interest’s Dimitri Simes observes about what is going on in Russia, “Hard-line people, more nationalist people, they are being energized, they think this may be their moment,” and besides the hardliners from whom we are already hearing “there is a lot behind them that is potentially more serious and more ominous.”

It’s true that Western governments shouldn’t want to encourage Russian hard-liners, and one way to avoid doing that is not to imitate their paranoia, threat inflation, and alarmism. Unfortunately, it is in McCain’s narrow political interest and that of other hawks in the West to take advantage of the crisis to promote their preferred confrontational kind of foreign policy, which relies on a combination of all three. As Pillar mentions, the crisis is also providing an opening for those in Russia that welcome Western punishment and attempts at isolation. The New York Times article that he cited is worth quoting here:

But it became clear last week, as the United States threatened to cut off Russian corporations from the Western financial system, that influential members of the president’s inner circle view isolation from the West as a good thing for Russia [bold mine-DL], the strain of thought advanced by Mr. Prokhanov and his fellow travelers. Some in Mr. Putin’s camp see the confrontation as an opportunity to make the diplomatic turn toward China that they have long advocated [bold mine-DL], said Sergei A. Karaganov, a dean of the faculty of international relations at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

“This whole episode is going to change the rules of the game,” Mr. Karaganov said of Crimea, which is holding a referendum on secession on Sunday. “Confrontation with the West is welcomed by all too many here, to cleanse the elite, to organize the nation.”

If these views prevail, Western governments’ relations with Russia will be poisoned for the next decade at least, and punitive measures against Russia will drive it into closer cooperation with China, which is exactly what Western governments should be trying to prevent from happening. Perversely, many of the same people that have wrongly been sounding an alarm about an “axis” of authoritarian states are demanding a reaction to the crisis in Ukraine that will make such a thing more likely to come into being. Unless Western governments want to give encouragement to the least desirable and most hostile political forces inside Russia, they would be wise to think about the longer-term effects of any punitive actions that they choose to take now. Trying to coerce and isolate another country is almost always guaranteed to breed resentment and to strengthen the worst kind of nationalism, and that is just what the U.S. and its allies should strive not to encourage in Russia.