Today’s drift toward war with Russia seems like a replay of the past. Putin is a Russian nationalist, who believes in a strong Stalinist state. His goal is to reverse the events of 1989–the end of the Soviet state and dissolution of its enormous empire. He seeks to do this by using what remains of Russia’s Stalinist heritage: the military, a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons and immense resources of natural gas and other forms of energy. These are powerful tools to wield against the various weak states that were part of the U.S.S.R. None has nuclear weapons, and most are dependent on the (relatively) cheap energy Russia supplies. All have ethnic Russian minorities, who speak the language, boast of their superior Russian culture and claim to have been relegated to second-class citizenship. Putin can rely on these minorities to agitate for Russian intervention whenever he wants–most importantly in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. His successful annexation of Crimea is greatly encouraging to his long-term plans, and it’s clear he’ll use everything in his power, including military force, to reconstruct his empire.
What’s to stop Putin? The West is led by the modern equivalents of Chamberlain: President François Hollande of France is a political nonentity repudiated by his own compatriots; Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have both ruled out the use of force to stop Putin from annexing Ukraine; and worst of all, President Barack Obama–the one man who has the power to stop Putin in his tracks–does nothing. He makes Neville Chamberlain seem like a bellicose activist.