Washington will maintain a balance of power in Central and Eastern Europe by creating an alliance structure.
As I discussed last week, the fundamental problem that Ukraine poses for Russia, beyond a long-term geographical threat, is a crisis in internal legitimacy. Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent his time in power rebuilding the authority of the Russian state within Russia and the authority of Russia within the former Soviet Union. The events in Ukraine undermine the second strategy and potentially the first. If Putin cannot maintain at least Ukrainian neutrality, then the world's perception of him as a master strategist is shattered, and the legitimacy and authority he has built for the Russian state is, at best, shaken.
Whatever the origins of the events in Ukraine, the United States is now engaged in a confrontation with Russia. The Russians believe that the United States was the prime mover behind regime change in Ukraine. At the very least, the Russians intend to reverse events in Ukraine. At most, the Russians have reached the conclusion that the United States intends to undermine Russia's power. They will resist. The United States has the option of declining confrontation, engaging inmeaningless sanctions against individuals and allowing events to take their course. Alternatively, the United States can choose to engage and confront the Russians.
A failure to engage at this point would cause countries around Russia's periphery, from Estonia to Azerbaijan, to conclude that with the United States withdrawn and Europe fragmented, they must reach an accommodation with Russia. This will expand Russian power and open the door to Russian influence spreading on the European Peninsula itself. The United States has fought three wars (World War I, World War II and the Cold War) to prevent hegemonic domination of the region. Failure to engage would be a reversal of a century-old strategy.
The American dilemma is how to address the strategic context in a global setting in which it is less involved in the Middle East and is continuing to work toward a "pivot to Asia." Nor can the United States simply allow events to take their course. The United States needs a strategy that is economical and coherent militarily, politically and financially. It has two advantages. Some of the countries on Russia's periphery do not want to be dominated by her. Russia, in spite of some strengths, is inherently weak and does not require U.S. exertion on the order of the two World Wars, the Cold War or even the Middle East engagements of the past decade.