At that point U.S. policymakers would have to face the reality that (1) they are unwilling to fight Russia to protect places like Ukraine, and (2) they have no real defenses of the American homeland against a sizable nuclear attack. In other words, the only reason Washington seems to have the upper hand right now is because it assumes leaders in Moscow will act “rationally.”
The unspoken wisdom in Washington today is that if nobody gives voice to such fears, then they don’t need to be addressed. That’s how a peaceful world stumbled into the First World War a century ago — by not acknowledging the worst-case potential of a crisis in Eastern Europe — and the blindness of leaders back then explains most of what went wrong later in the 20th Century. If we want to avoid the risk of reliving that multi-generation lesson, then U.S. policymakers need to do something more than simply wait for Putin to crack. That day will never come. In the near term, Washington needs to work harder to defuse tensions, including taking a more serious look at the history that led to Moscow’s move on Crimea. Over the longer term, Washington needs to get beyond its dangerous aversion to building real defenses against long-range nuclear weapons, because it is just a matter of time before some dictator calls America’s bluff.