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As the ruble collapses, how dangerous is Russia?

Live by high oil prices, die by low oil prices.

In 2008, when a master of universe at Goldman Sachs predicted oil prices hitting $180 a barrel, Vladimir Putin invaded Georgia. In spring 2014, with oil prices over $100 a barrel, he invaded Ukraine. Then the American fracking revolution hit world oil prices, Saudi Arabia decided to fight it with low prices — and Vladimir Putin's luck ran out. In a year, the ruble fell by half against the dollar.

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Ouch!

This Thursday, Christmas Day, is the 25th anniversary of the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. It was the final major domino in the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, which led to the demise of the Soviet Union. And it launched a vision in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere that that the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union (Russia) would come in from the cold.

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Political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared the "end of history." His point was that the ideological battle of the 19th and 20th centuries between democracy and dictatorship was over — and democracy had won.

He was basically right — the ideological war was over. But, as Mr. Putin's centralization of power in Russia and his invasion of Ukraine show, underlined by his recent rhetoric, authoritarianism and power politics are not.

That's something on which Mr. Putin and his critics from Estonia to Bulgaria would agree. To all of them, today's conflicts don't seem different from the conflicts of the 20th Century, 19th century and even 18th Century. Russia wants to dominate them, and they don't like that.

Capitalism and democracy won in terms of performance, and therefore legitimacy. Central and Eastern Europeans are afraid of Mr. Putin's motivations and his military strength, but not afraid of his soft power to win the hearts and minds of their neighbors. Almost all of central and Eastern Europe already are in the European Union and NATO, and none is looking the leave. Even in Ukraine and Georgia, many if not most are drawn to the western, democratic model, not Mr. Putin's Russia.

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In the last 25 years, Russia has made much less political and economic progress than its western neighbors. It has become essentially a petro-state, dependent on its fossil fuel resources for jobs, government revenue and popular support. No wonder the Ukrainians prefer the EU to Mr. Putin's Eurasian Economic Union.

Today, Mr. Putin's Russia is dangerous to itself, to its neighbors and, since it has nuclear weapons, potentially to us.

The danger to itself is self-evident. In the more than two decades since the collapse of Soviet Communism, Russia has failed to build a balanced, competitive economy. While it has reduced its dependence on military spending, expanded trade and opened borders, Russia still relies on oil and gas for two thirds of its exports and half its government revenue. It's more a Christian version of Saudi Arabia than an Orthodox version of Germany.

Its recent invasions of Georgia and Ukraine confirm its danger to its neighbors. Given history and Mr. Putin's rhetoric, the Baltic states, Azerbaijan, Poland, Kazakhstan and Finland aren't paranoid. Is Russia likely to invade them? No. But are invasion, subversion and cyberwar possible? Certainly. And countries such as the Czech Republic and Romania were prescient, not crazy, to work so hard to join the EU and NATO.

Finally, how dangerous is Mr. Putin's Russia to America?

Dangerous enough that we should pay attention.

First, while its economic failures have dramatically reduced its ideological appeal and military capacity, they also have boosted its culture of victimhood. A Russia that sees itself as a loser in the world is not good for the U.S. One of the reasons Germany and Japan are strong allies of the U.S. — which make us safer — is that they have been economic winners since World War II. And America has been their partner in growth. That's the relationship every U.S. president from George H. W. Bush through Barack Obama has wanted with Russia. We want them to be economic winners. But, in Russia as in many areas of the world, win/lose seems more credible than win/win.

Second, despite its economic, military and ideological weaknesses, Russia is still a big country — geographically, demographically and symbolically. It looms large to its neighbors and to us. Mr. Putin knows he can punch above his weight class — and he enjoys doing it. There's a danger he may miscalculate, overshoot his skies. His Russia is not Stalin's Soviet Union or today's China. But it spans two continents, borders our closest allies (Europe) and our biggest rising competitor (China). With these neighbors and nuclear weapons, Russia can create world-scale problems just being a neighborhood bully.

The bottom line is that, 25 years after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, Emanuel Kant's vision of "perpetual peace" remains over the horizon. Or, as Ronald Reagan's 1984 campaign ads memorably said, "There is a bear in the woods."

Jim Rosapepe was U.S. Ambassador to Romania under President Bill Clinton; his email is Jim.Rosapepe@senate.state.md.us. Sheilah Kast was an ABC News Correspondent who covered the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union; her email is newskast@gmail.com. They are co authors of "Dracula Is Dead: Travels in Post-Communist Romania."

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