Pro-russian separatists east of Donezk, Ukraine © Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

English version of  "Die Welt ist verrückt – und was machen wir"

At some point those in charge at the Kremlin must have lost patience. In any case, on a cold Sunday in January troops and tanks were sent to Vilnius to squash any spectre of Lithuanian independence. Fourteen people died that day: Some were run over by tanks and more than a thousand were injured.

This wasn’t a dystopia, a gloomy preview of where Vladmir Putin’s aggressive polices might end. That so-called ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Vilnius took place, however, twenty-three years ago, and the man who gave the order to put down the Lithuanian freedom movement was Mikhail Gorbachev. Yes, the very same man who to this day is celebrated as the West’s best friend and the man who made German unification possible. In Berlin today there are many politicians who think back and ask themselves: if Gorbachev was in a position to do such a thing, what can we expect from Putin?

The question appears completely plausible – because the Russian president has achieved everything one could realistically expect in the Ukraine from his "Forward Strategy" of Russian interests. Although the West will not ratify annexing the Crimea under international law, he did it anyway without much difficulty; it looks increasingly unlikely that the Ukraine will become a member of Nato for the foreseeable future; the Ukraine will be able to work with the EU as well as the dominant Russian customs union and what’s more, a federal Ukrainian state with self-determination for Russian minorities is already being mooted. Putin already has this in his grasp and knows it. So why does he continue to send heavy arms into eastern Ukraine?

The optimists say he wants to save face by not accepting the military defeat of his separatists and as such he has to continue without a strategic goal.

Conversely, the pessimists believe the Kremlin chief does indeed have a strategic goal, which doesn’t involve weakening and destabilising the Ukraine but rather the weakening and destabilising of the West and Nato in particular.

The West – weaker than ever before

It’s hardly surprising that the competing powers would come to such a conclusion these days, given that the USA and Europe find themselves in a deep international crisis of values. The strategic uncertainty in the western capitals is palpable. The three-way crisis – in the Ukraine, the Arabic-speaking world and again in the Middle East – is proving mentally, politically and militarily overwhelming. This is all too obvious and any attempt to deny it, so as not to encourage their opponents further, seems pointless. We must now try to get to the heart of the matter even if the conflicts continue at such a pace, not least because Putin’s ideological and military offensive looks to bring the West into turmoil.

Bringing the west into turmoil? Why? The Baltic states with their Russian minority play a significant part here as Nato’s Achilles heel. In view of the fact the Russian leadership will exploit the Ukraine scenario in other areas – Russian minorities call for aid, soldiers without any obvious national markings appear as well as Russian arms, then a civil war and so on – what can the West do?

Not much. The Baltic states from a military perspective are very difficult to defend and even harder to win back. (Unless you stationed so many western soldiers and heavy arms in the region that Russia would feel provoked and Nato would be viewed as the aggressor.) Winning back the Baltic states would indeed lead to a direct conflict between Nato and Russia and thus an escalation in the threat of nuclear action. The older people among us, probably including Vladimir Putin, recall the basic rules of nuclear confrontations, whereby the madman is the strongest. They state in such a conflict that the one who gains dominance is the one who is prepared to suffer more casualties and who is willing and mad enough to escalate the situation to the next level. This role will not be played by Nato - the West is not crazy enough; nor is the Nato-General Secretary. However, if Nato were to shy away from a confrontation with Russia after a direct attack on the Baltic states, albeit on the far edge of its territory, Nato would to all intents and purposes "be dead" according to the German Defence Minister in DIE ZEIT last week. Ursula von der Leyen speaks with a certain openness of a foreign policy newcomer; others simply murmur about the new vulnerability of the West.

Sanctions are Nato’s version of "Forward Strategy"

Whether it will ever come to it in the Baltic states is not the burning issue right now. Merely the fact that such a scenario is imaginable, where dark threats take effect and presumably influence those involved, displays the bold and new ability of the Kremlin to provoke – as is happening in the conflict in the Ukraine today. Some criticise sanctions against Russia by arguing they may work in the long term but in the current situation they are simply ineffective or even counter-productive. Initially, that may well be the case but the argument is misconceived. These sanctions are an implicit warning to Putin that he should not dare put one foot further than on Ukrainian soil. The message goes: We know that you know that we won’t intervene militarily but you should also know that we are strong, unified, willing to make sacrifices and determined enough to fight together, albeit only economically (if that is the case).