Steve Chapman

Too bad the Soviet leaders of 1979 aren't around to tell him about their invasion of Afghanistan, undertaken to rescue an ally. By the time the Soviets left in 1989, they had lost more than 14,000 lives as well as the war. An invasion that the West saw as a terrible setback helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The men in the Politburo were groping in the dark -- just as American presidents often do and just as Putin is doing. Our enemies, it's easy to forget, are just as fallible, blind to risks, misled by ideology and limited in options as we are. They have no magical capacity to see the future. They face obstacles they can't overcome.

Putin opposed the expansion of NATO, to no avail. He opposed the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which happened anyway. His country shares land borders with 14 countries, many of them hostile.

One of them, China, is a historic rival that has become an economic power, boasts the biggest army on Earth and is building a blue-water navy. Unlike his Communist predecessors, Putin has little power to influence events beyond his backyard. As shown in Ukraine, even his backyard can be unmanageable.

What he's done in Crimea won't make Russia stronger. It will cost the government large sums of money, year after year. It has sown distrust among his neighbors and around the world. It will spur his biggest natural gas customers, in Europe, to reduce their dependence on him. All that is before the impact of any economic sanctions the West may impose.

On the surface, Putin looks like the big winner in this crisis. But he may find himself in the position of the ancient Greek King Pyrrhus, who reflected on the outcome of a major battle: "One more such victory and we are lost."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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