As Western leaders struggle to respond to Vladimir Putin’s surprisingly dramatic challenge to post-Cold War order in Europe, the record so far is mixed. The West has pulled together something close to a united position on the limits of the concessions it is prepared to make and the nature of the sanctions it is prepared to impose should Mr. Putin choose war. Neither the hyperactive demagogy of Paris nor the phlegmatic passivity of Berlin prevented the emergence of a common Western position. It is an accomplishment for which the Biden administration deserves credit.
However, this is a defensive accomplishment, not a decisive one. As Mr. Putin demonstrated in his speech on Monday, the Russian president is always in the driving seat, and it is his decisions, not ours, that will shape the next stage of the confrontation. Russia, a power that Western leaders have mocked and ridiculed for decades (“a gas station masquerading as a country,” as Senator John McCain once said), took the diplomatic initiative and military in Europe, and the West is, so far, powerless to do anything about it. We wring our hands, offer Mr. Putin ways out, and hope that our carefully circumscribed descriptions of the sanctions we are prepared to impose will change his mind.