Vladimir Putin is aggressive, increasingly armed, and dangerous. Besides his recent attack against Ukraine, he invaded Georgia in 2008 and has been rearming since well before then. Like his Communist and czarist predecessors, Putin seeks to expand Moscow’s control. Russian military spending—for example, on its impressive new nuclear attack submarine, the Severodvinsk, along with Moscow’s ambitious plans to rebuild its Pacific fleet—indicate that Putin does not regard the post-Communist contraction in imperial reach as permanent.
He is also highly vulnerable. He is sustained by the export of oil and gas, whose revenue lines the pockets of his political base, Russia’s plutocracy. But he needs foreign technology to extract and export energy, and he depends heavily on unchallenged control over the gas and oil markets to his main purchasers in Europe. Large oil and gas revenues and aggressiveness is a toxic brew. The invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula this past weekend demonstrates again that Putin is moving deliberately to gather back what was lost when the Soviet empire imploded.
As with stars, the death of empires is usually explosive. However, unlike stars, imperial explosion is not bound by physics to occur simultaneously with the precipitating event. The Ottoman Empire perished a slow death that ended in the early 20th century. Current Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s embrace of the old Ottomans’ religious fervor, his longing for the associated caliphate and his navalist ambitions show that a century can pass before a state convulses in partial reaction to its lost imperium.
Russia, by contrast, is only 23 years away from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Its briefly suppressed and now reawakening imperial appetite could lead to serious trouble which would come in the shape of the West’s appeasement or a violent shock from one of NATO’s newer members which recalls Soviet occupation with horror. Either one of these has the potential to destroy NATO. The best and most remote possibility is that a unified NATO would act in the understanding that resoluteness now lessens the likelihood of a far more grave crisis in the future.
The West could do worse than to learn from its history. Justifying his invasion of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, Hitler told the Reichstag that the “German minority living there [the part of Czechoslovakia he called the ‘southern land’] has been ill-treated in the most distressing manner.” Justifying his nation’s invasion of Crimea, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov conjured up the equally nonsensical excuse that Ukraine’s ethnic Russian citizens are in danger. He told the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva on Monday that “we are talking here about protection of the most fundamental of the human rights—the right to live and nothing more.” Autocrats are supremely unimaginative. The excuses they offer for aggression haven’t changed in 75 years. More important, the limits of territorial aggression in Russia’s case—absent persuasive Western action—will not stop with Ukraine and encompass the former satellite states that lay on the eastern side of the iron curtain. Because most of those states are NATO members the West now faces a major choice: effective action to reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea or the real prospect that other parts of Ukraine will be seized. Russia’s possession of Ukraine ultimately risks such neighboring states as Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.