Victor Davis Hanson

Maybe. But it would be wiser to review the historical causes of war, especially why conflicts break out. Aggressors often attack their weaker neighbors to restore a sense of pride. They calibrate self-interest not so much in getting more stuff as winning greater honor, feeling safer and instilling more fear.

Bullies such as imperial Persia, Napoleonic France, imperial Germany, Hitler's Third Reich and Stalin's Soviet Union did not really believe that their peoples would starve without annexing someone else's lands. Despite their pretexts, these empires all privately knew that they had sufficient living space.

These autocracies acted out emotionally satisfying ideas such as crushing an upstart weak Greece, or extending French culture across Europe, or reminding European states that the proud German Volk was as superior as it was underappreciated, or reassuring Russians that the New Soviet Man was at last safe, respected and feared abroad.

Just as importantly, history's aggressors embraced their fears and sense of honor because they thought they could get away with doing so scot-free -- given the perceived loss of deterrence.

Putin, like Hitler in 1939, may be weak in geostrategic terms. But as long as he does not provoke an American and European collective response, he can assume that Russia is far stronger than any one of his next targets.

Like Hitler, Putin does not know exactly which future aggressive act will prompt an American and European reaction. But until then, he is willing to continue gambling that he can restore some more of the lost empire of the czars and commissars -- and with it more Russian honor, influence and pride -- without consequences.

If history is any guide, these emotions are driving Putin to grab things that are not his. Putin acts now because in the era of failed reset diplomacy and recent empty American deadlines, red lines and step-over lines, he feels the old U.S. deterrent is absent or dormant. And he will keep up his aggression until he senses that the increasing risks no longer warrant the diminishing returns of absorbing his neighbors.

We should stop trying to psychoanalyze Putin, arguing that he is really weak or is an adolescent showing off his machismo -- much less that he has legitimate grievances.

Instead, Putin believes that the more he grabs from others, the prouder his otherwise downtrodden citizens will become, the more respect they will earn abroad, and the less likely others will fool with him.

Until that is no longer true, Putin will continue.


Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.