Vladimir Putin's Russia is a disaster of a declining population, corruption, authoritarianism, a warped economy and a high rate of alcoholism.
Why, then, would Putin want to ruin additional territory in Crimea and Ukraine the way that he has wrecked most of Russia?
Doesn't Russia have enough land for its diminishing population? Are there not enough minerals, timber, gas and oil for Putin's kleptocrats?
In the modern age, especially since Karl Marx, we rationalize the causes of wars as understandable fights over real things, like access to ports, oil fields, good farmland and the like. Yet in the last 2,500 years of Western history, nations have just as often invaded and attacked each other for intangibles. The historian Thucydides wrote that the classical Athenians had won and kept their empire mostly out of "fear, honor and self-interest."
Maybe that was why most battles in ancient Greece broke out over rocky and mountainous borderlands. Possession of these largely worthless corridors did not add to the material riches of the Spartans, Thebans or Athenians. But dying for such victories did wonders for their national pride and collective sense of self.
Why did the Argentine dictatorship invade the British Falkland Islands in 1982? The great Argentine novelist Jorge Luis Borges dismissed the entire Argentine-British dispute over the isolated, windswept rocks as a pathetic fight between "two bald men over a comb."
Taking the "Malvinas" apparently was critical to restoring the Argentine dictatorship's lost pride. In contrast, the descendants of Lord Nelson were not about to allow a few peacock generals to insult the honor of the British Royal Navy.
Doesn't China have enough land without starting a beef with Japan over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands? While there may be some oil in the vicinity, apparently both sides see these desolate mountainous islets as symbols of more important issues of national prestige and will. Lose the Senkaku Islands and what larger island goes next?
Saddam Hussein had enough land without invading Iran in 1980. But his impoverished Iraqis grew terrified of revolutionary Shiite Iran and lashed out. Iraq also had enough oil without taking Kuwait in 1990. But occupying it made Iraqis proud at home and feared in the Middle East neighborhood.
The Obama administration has tried to psychoanalyze Putin as lashing out because of weakness. Or he is supposedly an unruly kid cutting up at the back of the classroom. Or he is acting out a tough-guy "shtick," as President Obama put it.