An old joke about Russia is that its territorial ambitions are modest: It never wants anything more than the country next door.
The world hasn’t seen much of that Russia since the 1980s, when the old Soviet Union tried to grab Afghanistan. Aside from taking a slice off Georgia in 2008, it has more or less respected its neighbors’ borders.
That’s all the more striking given President Vladimir Putin’s nostalgia for the Soviet Union, which occupied many of those neighbors — Ukraine, the Baltic republics, Kazakhstan, etc. — before it collapsed in 1991.
Russia’s seizure of Crimea last month is unsettling evidence that it hasn’t buried its past. Europe hasn’t experienced such a naked conquest since 1945, when Josef Stalin used the Red Army to swallow Eastern Europe whole.
American and European economic sanctions won’t restore Crimea to Ukraine. For one thing, Putin is right that most Crimeans, being Russian, prefer Russia to Ukraine. A military response is out of the question. And even if Western governments had the stomach for truly harsh sanctions, Putin has already invested far too much of his own prestige in Crimea to give it up now.
The realistic goal at this point is damage control. President Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and their allies must persuade Putin that Russia will pay too high a price if he takes a second helping. The threat has to be credible enough to dissuade him from grabbing Eastern Ukraine and who knows whatever other real estate he dreams about at night.
Power-hungry dictators push at boundaries. If they nibble at something delectable and no one seems to care, they help themselves to more.
The nightmare case is Adolf Hitler, who met with little pushback from France and Great Britain when he started grabbing neighboring countries. No one should forget Russia was an ally of Nazi Germany, joining its conquest of Poland, when Hitler finally took the fatal step into war.
Spooky as he is, Putin thus far shows few signs of being another Hitler or Stalin. He’s best understood the way he seems to understand himself — as a nationalist autocrat in the mold of the stronger Russian czars.
Czarist Russia wasn’t as depraved as the Soviet Union, but that’s a low bar. The czars didn’t murder people by the millions, but the worst of them were paranoid, oppressive, militaristic and relentlessly expansionistic.
We can hope Putin isn’t out to restore all the pathologies of czarism, but his decision to march troops into Crimea should be fair warning. This Russian president is not a partner and not a friend. With apologies to Ronald Reagan, the way to deal with him is to verify but never trust.