Cliff May

“A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” is how Winston Churchill famously described Russia in 1939. Churchill less famously added: “But perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest."

Determinedly modernist Western leaders have tried hard to convince Vladimir Putin that Russia’s national interest – and his personal interest as well -- is to be a member-in- good-standing of the so-called International Community, someone praised by President Obama, not admonished by John Kerry who, following Russia’s seizure of Crimea, exclaimed: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext!”

But being regarded as unfashionable by the American secretary of state is a punishment the Russian president is apparently willing to endure in order to redraw the borders of Eurasia. Under both tsars and commissars, the occupant of the Kremlin commanded an empire. I’d wager that Putin sees it as his mission – perhaps his destiny -- to reestablish the status quo ante. If the polls are to be believed, most Russians are solidly behind him.

How far will Putin go? He’s no communist but I do think he learned from Lenin who famously said that when you probe with your bayonet and hit steel, you back off, but when you hit mush, you continue moving forward. Raise your hand if you believe Putin has so far hit anything other than mush from the U.S., the European Union and NATO (and the U.N. – that goes without saying).

Some questions to which I don’t think we yet have answers: Does Putin want all of Ukraine or just the most productive slices, leaving the remainder an impoverished ward of the West? Will he settle for an expanded sphere of influence, with the countries on Russia’s borders, the “near abroad,” retaining de jure independence – as long as they don’t forget to whom they must kowtow? Or does he, perhaps, harbor grander ambitions?

It is not inconceivable that Putin believes he can – and therefore should – precipitate NATO’s collapse. He could accomplish this by following his invasion on a trumped-up pretext of Ukraine with an invasion on a trumped-up pretext of one or more of NATO’s smaller members -- nations that once were Soviet republics and still have sizeable Russian populations. If NATO should prove unwilling or unable to defend Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, that would be the death of the venerable but increasingly feeble alliance.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.