Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Ukrainian rebels his country backs clearly have the upper hand going into planned a summit meeting with Western leaders in Belarus on Wednesday . In recent weeks Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country have scored significant victories over Ukrainian government forces, seizing several important towns. The biggest sticking point at the meeting — if, indeed, it even takes place — is likely to be whether the rebels will accept any cessation of hostilities that requires them to pull back from the territories they captured in the most recent fighting and return to the positions they occupied before a previous cease fire broke down. So far, neither Mr. Putin nor the rebels have indicated any willingness to do so.

Mr. Putin also has the advantage in that the Western powers, despite their assurances to the contrary, are not completely united in their strategy for diffusing the situation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Washington today and appeared jointly with President Barack Obama, but even as she insisted that she didn't "see a military solution to this conflict," President Obama, under pressure from some in Congress to send lethal aid to Ukraine, observed that sanctions have "not yet persuaded Mr. Putin from following the course that he is on."

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The president's announcement that he has asked his advisers to "look at all options," including military aid, represents something of an evolution. The administration had previously insisted that its policy remained centered on a diplomatic and political resolution of the conflict there and that sending sophisticated weaponry to the beleaguered government in Kiev, as some members of Congress have urged, would only make matters worse by giving Mr. Putin an excuse to further escalate the conflict. European leaders, meanwhile, continue to argue that no amount of direct U.S. or European assistance is likely to make Ukraine's weak military a match for the Russian-armed and equipped paramilitary forces engaged in the fighting, let alone the thousands of regular Russian Army troops stationed near the border.

However, Sen. John McCain, one of the administration's most vocal critics on Ukraine, argues that the purpose of U.S. military aid to Kiev doesn't necessarily have to be defeating the Russian-backed rebels. It would be enough, in his view, simply to raise the cost to Russia of continuing the war to the point where Mr. Putin can no longer deny the fact that Russian soldiers are dying there. Mr. McCain thinks at that point Russian public opinion would quickly turn against both Russian involvement in the war and Mr. Putin personally, forcing him to find a face-saving way of extricating himself from an unwinnable situation.

The problem with that reasoning is that there's no evidence to suggest such a change in Russian public opinion is likely to occur even if Mr. Putin were to start losing the war, and even then it might not make any difference. Mr. Putin holds an iron grip on Russia's state-controlled media, which have dutifully portrayed the conflict in Ukraine as a heroic struggle by an oppressed Russian-speaking minority against a perfidious Western conspiracy to deprive Russia of its rightful place in the world. There's just as much reason to think ordinary Russians could rise up and demand the interlopers be crushed as there is to believe they would repudiate Mr. Putin's leadership.

But despite the president's skepticism about sanctions, they are inflicting real damage on Russia's already faltering economy and can be tightened further. That, coupled with falling oil prices that have been exacerbated by Saudi Arabia's refusal to cut production despite the glut on the market, hits Mr. Putin where it hurts because it sharply limits his ability to deliver on the promises he has made to improve life for ordinary Russians and bring prosperity to the country through economic growth. Last year the Russian ruble lost nearly half its value against the dollar, and things will get even worse for Russia's economy if the screws continue to tighten.

That gives the U.S. and its partners a powerful leverage in encouraging Mr. Putin to cooperate in a resolution of the crisis. What Ms. Merkel and French President Francois Hollande need to find out in Belarus is whether Mr. Putin merely wants want to have more influence over Ukraine in order to keep it from joining NATO and the E.U., or whether he's bent on tearing up the whole post-Cold War order in order to fulfill a grandiose vision of Russian greatness.

If it's the former, a political settlement is achievable that would allow Ukraine to become a non-aligned buffer state between Russia and NATO that threatens neither. But if it's the latter, the U.S. and Europe must be prepared to use all the economic and diplomatic tools available to convince him that Russia will pay a terrible cost for violating the post-Cold War principle that international borders cannot be redrawn by force.

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