Perhaps the most surprising thing about Russia's two-week-old invasion of Ukraine is that it surprised so many people.
On the eve of Moscow's incursion into the Crimean Peninsula, the U.S. intelligence community apparently concluded that Putin's military mobilization was nothing more than a bluff. So did CNN's esteemed foreign policy czar, Fareed Zakaria, who judged the possibility of a Russian invasion to be exceedingly unlikely, despite convincing signs to the contrary. In truth, however, the writing had been on the wall for quite some time.
Ideologically, Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been an ardent champion of the idea of a "greater Russia." Back in 2005, in a now-infamous statement, he declared publicly that the collapse of the USSR had been the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century. He has since made the reconstitution of a neo-Soviet sphere of influence a top priority, using economic constructs like the Eurasian Union and security blocs such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as his tools of choice.
Ukraine looms large in this calculus. The country's independence has long been a thorn in the side of Moscow, and designs on Ukrainian territory are ubiquitous across the Russian political spectrum. Ukraine is also a major geopolitical prize, by virtue of its strategic location in Eastern Europe and its indispensable role as a conduit for Russian energy flowing to the European Union.
Putin's actions have also been propelled by more local political considerations. Russia's president may be winning on the world stage, but that does not mean he's without challenges at home. A December 2013 poll by Moscow's Levada Center, for example, found him facing his lowest approval rating in thirteen years amid rising popular discontent. The reasons have everything to do with Russia's increasingly sluggish, uncompetitive economy—and growing domestic ire at Putin's lackluster stewardship of it. A strategic victory such as the seizure of Ukrainian territory, something that is widely supported by the Russian electorate, could help buoy Putin's political standing, if only temporarily.
Russia's actions, meanwhile, have been emboldened by what it perceives as a weakened, divided West—one with less ability, and desire, to contain Russian expansionism than was on evidence in previous years.
Sadly, the Kremlin has been proven right. Washington and European capitals are belatedly moving toward sterner measures against Moscow, at least on the economic front. But Russia has been given plenty of opportunity to entrench itself in Crimea, to the point where a complete Russian withdrawal is now hard to imagine, while a further advance of Russian forces into eastern Ukraine is much easier to envision.
There's a lesson here about viewing the world as it is, rather than as you wish it would be. President Obama made a "reset" of relations with Russia a centerpiece of his Administration's foreign policy during its first term in office. In pursuit of this ill-fated goal, the White House chose to repeatedly ignore Moscow's increasingly hostile international behavior, and minimize its accelerating authoritarian drift at home. Worse still, Team Obama's systematic disengagement on a number of foreign fronts (European missile defense, the war in Afghanistan, and others) provided Russia with both the opportunity and the incentive to act upon its imperial impulses.
It now has, much to the West's chagrin. Administration officials like Secretary of State John Kerry may rail against Russia's actions in Ukraine as unacceptable "19th century behavior." But Moscow's maneuvers simply reflect the fact that geopolitics is a competitive sport, and one in which resolve, timing and force are respected far more than negotiations and diplomacy.
The sooner the Obama administration—and everyone else—comes to grips with this unpleasant reality and begins to behave accordingly, the safer the world will be.