"The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War's been over for 20 years."
— President Barack Obama in an Oct. 22, 2012, presidential debate; challenger Mitt Romney had said Russia "is our No. 1 geopolitical foe."
"A generation of Westerners has grown up in the happy belief that the Cold War ended long ago and peace is Europe's fated future. They are slow to rally to the chore of once again containing Russia's ambitions. So Putin presses ahead. … Other world leaders try to avoid crises; Putin feasts on them."
—Time, July 24, 2014
Imagine Vladimir Putin's sheer delight. The United States and other Western nations, having tried but failed to avoid entanglements in Asia Minor, scramble to make up for lost time and lost influence:
•In Iraq, American warplanes pound Islamic State extremists who are butchering their way to creation of a caliphate capable of nurturing new terror plots.
•In Syria, Putin protege Bashar Assad's military advanced Tuesday toward Aleppo, as if moving to starve and decisively crush the three-year rebellion that clings to life in that major city.
•In Afghanistan, U.S. troops are packing to leave Putin's neighborhood.
•And in Iran, officials continue to spin the centrifuges and slow-walk containment talks; Tehran may have concluded that Western leaders have no stomach for attacks on its nuclear bombs program.
The unifying theme? While these and more crises du jour occupy Western leaders and the world's news media, Putin blithely moves to occupy something else: eastern Ukraine. Putin is playing a long game, striving to re-establish Russian clout across as much of Asia and Europe as he can. He sees an America focused on affairs at home, and yearns to push it further to the sidelines. In April he spoke of building a "greater Europe," Time reports, that would stretch from Portugal to Russia's Pacific coast, with Moscow as one of its centers of influence.
And though it's early in Putin's quest, who's to stop him? So far, no one:
The Ukrainian government that sought to ally closer with Europe? He fomented the turbulence that toppled it. His capture of Ukraine's Crimea region? The West blinked, then looked away. The downing of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with 298 innocents aboard? As the West applies limited sanctions to pressure Putin, an independent poll released last week puts his approval rating among Russians at 87 percent — 4 points higher than in May.
And future exploits? Putin loathes NATO and, we'd guess, wonders whether the alliance is likelier to crack than to attack Russia if he invents some reason to poach in a member country. He hears President Obama and other Western leaders often assure their domestic audiences that they won't deploy combat troops to this or that conflict.
We understand those assurances; neither America nor its allies are spoiling for war. But these are welcome assurances to Kremlin ears, too: The Russian bear has learned that it can slap its neighbors and not even fear installation of the missile defense system that, in 2009, Putin persuaded Obama not to place in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Putin's latest gambit is a convoy of trucks carrying humanitarian aid from Russia — grain, baby food, medicine, sleeping bags — to the war-torn areas of Ukraine where pro-Russia rebels have been losing ground to the Kiev government. Russian TV viewers were treated to lavish coverage of their government's ostensible generosity. The Orthodox priest sprinkling the trucks with holy water was a gifted touch; before Chicago's municipal primary election next winter, we expect politicians to use similar props when dispatching plows in snowstorms.
Yes, having stoked the very resistance and bloodshed that has befallen Ukraine, Putin now mimics Mighty Mouse, in effect declaring, Here I come to save the day! Or is the legendary Trojan Horse of 1240 or so B.C. a more apt animal analogy?
Suspicious Ukrainian leaders wonder if this convoy is a pretext for the Russian military intervention in Ukraine that Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary general of NATO, this week warned is a "high probability." In such a scenario Putin would, say, send the troops he has massed on Ukraine's border into that smaller country, declaring that his military will make sure the Russian goods reach people who just happen to be in Russia-leaning areas of Ukraine.
Maybe the air will come out of this bubble before it pops; Putin has masterfully flummoxed Western leaders by increasing, then decreasing, tensions.
The broad thrust of his ambition, though, could not be more clear. His vision of a muscular Russia that confounds its geopolitical foes would come at the expense of nervous countries still so scarred by wars of the 20th century that they do ... not ... want ... a ... fight.
But if all of us can see where Putin's strategy is pointing, we cannot know its limits. The more he exploits the West's preoccupation with other crises, though, the more he forces the West's leaders to mull the question their predecessors asked throughout the Cold War as they reacted to bellicose Soviet premiers:
How far do we let this guy go?
How long until we have to confront him?
And how do we sell that to our citizens?