Vladimir Putin seems to catch the West by surprise every single time he invades another country — starting with Georgia, then Crimea, Ukraine, and now Syria. He hasn't yet reconquered the old Soviet Empire, but Eastern Europe and the Baltics are feeling an icy wind blowing from the East.
By now even the New York Times has noticed Putin's huge arms buildup, with a fivefold increase in the last decade. When Putin made his latest aggressive move into Syria, he made very sure that the world would take notice — using everything from ballistic and cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea to the guided missile cruiser Moskva in the Eastern Mediterranean. Under Putin, the Russian Empire is on the move, expanding north into the Arctic, west into Europe, south into the Middle East, and east with the new Russo-Chinese alliance.
To be sure, Putin has an Bamster-sized ego. But he also thinks strategically, unlike our political class, which apparently decided that with the election of Obama, peace and love were here to stay. The Norwegians embarrassed themselves by giving the Bam their most prestigious bauble, the Nobel Peace Prize, without even waiting for him to serve his first term. In a permanently peaceful world, why bother to spend money on defense?
Well, Russia is still a poor nation economically, but in the last ten years, Putin has quintupled its military budget. He didn't do that to build up his self-esteem.
Look at the world from Moscow's point of view. Unlike our foreign policy geniuses, educated Russians know a lot about their own history. The United States has lived a charmed life for two whole centuries, protected east and west by two great oceans and bordered north and south by much weaker powers.
Russia's history is the opposite. It's been invaded by Poland, Sweden, Lithuania, Germany, France, the Mongols, the Persians, and the Ottoman Empire. When Turkey's Recep Erdoğan launched his "neo-Ottoman" fantasy, nobody in Washington paid any attention. In fact, Obama has a sort of love affair with Mr. Erdoğan, whose family runs ISIS oil sales to the world — a fact that Putin is happy to publicize. But in the former Ottoman Empire, from Greece to the Turkic-speaking Stans of Asia, people are shivering in their boots. If Erdoğan succeeds in his imperial ambitions, the Russians fear that the Stans could revert to a future Turkish empire.
Americans think of Istanbul as a quaint tourist destination, but Russians know about four centuries of merciless Ottoman conquest and oppression. Because of our blessed history, Americans instinctively believe that peace is the normal condition of the world. Russians always prepare for trouble.
Russia is the largest country in the world, and it got that way by war and conquest. Before ICBMs put every nation in the world on 15-minute notice, more territory meant more safety from aggression. There was no practical difference between defensive and aggressive power. The tsars constantly enlarged their empire whenever they saw the chance, knowing that any future aggressor would have to travel farther to reach Moscow and Kiev. Putin started his rule by beating down the jihadist rebellion in Chechnya in the usual bloody fashion. Then he started to encroach on the easy targets in the "near abroad."
The Russian economy is in trouble, with the price of oil collapsing due to shale exploitation. Putin therefore has to seize the moment, because five years from now he may not be able to afford military adventures. He can also see the danger that Bush and Cheney warned us about — terrorists with nukes. The Iranian regime has exactly the same war theology as ISIS. Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is deeply infiltrated by Sunni radicals. The price of oil is likely to stay low due to shale discoveries, and as oil gets cheaper, the Saudis will get weaker and weaker.
If Russia wants to face that brave new world from a position of great power, Putin had to act. Like a smart chess player, Putin moved his strongest pieces into Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. He can parlay that strategic power move into many future benefits.
Putin is an opportunist, and under Obama we have offered him many opportunities. We weakened our defensive alliances, built over the last half century, leaving a huge vacuum — in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Which is why the "Arab Spring" has left much of the Arab world in ruin.
NATO is a hollow alliance, with the Europeans still hoping to get more of a free ride from Uncle Sam. Britain and France have drained their military budgets for social welfare programs. Germany has become a sort of pacifist nation, with the same kind of blind belief it adopted with the Kaiser and Hitler.
Without the United States, NATO would be pathetic, and now that Obama is crunching our defense budget, Putin is openly threatening Poland and even Sweden.
Just this week Obama assured us that he was going to use his last 14 months in office to "squeeze more change" out of the American system.
Well, Putin is planning the same thing on a worldwide basis. As long as Obama is in the White House, opportunistic jackals will seize their moment. China now claims a good chunk of the South China Sea from the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan. In the Muslim world, ISIS is trying to take and hold territory as the new caliphate. Every former imperial capital of Islam — Baghdad, Tehran, Istanbul — is trying to revive its former glory.
When you look at the world that way, Putin is playing a rational game.