I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on Russia, but almost 40 years ago, I took a bunch of Russian history classes in college. I was more interested in Russia in the 20th century, but I learned enough to see patterns emerge that go back centuries. While a lot of Americans saw Russia through the lens of the Cold War and equated its influence over Eastern Europe as part of a plan to spread communism, those countries that were dominated by the Soviet Union saw Russia as a bullying neighbor that had made incursions into their territory for ages.

Russia has always been insecure about its relationship with the West and its place in the world. They’ve long sought regional influence and international respect. Instead, they’ve been considered a large, lumbering, backward country with a bad temper and worse manners. They’ve been scrapping with their western neighbors for at least three hundred years. 

Ukraine provides a buffer between Russia and counties that have all seen Russian forces on their soil, countries like Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and Romania. These countries support Ukraine because they have no illusions that they may be next. An ill-tempered or opportunistic Putin would as quickly send troops into Budapest as he would Kyiv if he could launch the assault from Ukraine with little opposition. None of these countries want Russia’s westward expansion unchecked. 

The reality of the situation in Ukraine is bleak. Russia will almost certainly come away with a puppet regime. A civil war may engulf the country for years to come. Eventually, possibly in decades, the Russians will probably leave or be forced out, even if they return later. Still, resistance puts limits on Putin’s expansionist ambitions. If he’s getting strong push back from the West and Ukrainians, he’s less likely to try to move into other countries that he believes belong under Russia’s thumb. He also might face resistance at home if too many Russian soldiers come home in body bags.

Russia wants desperately to be a Great Power, but it’s not. It’s still a lumbering giant with little to offer the countries it wants to influence. All Putin has is an aggressive military and the willingness to sacrifice a lot of lives, both of Russia soldiers and their foes. They aren’t bringing cutting edge technology, enlightened philosophy, or economic prosperity. They just want to make sure that none of those relatively poor eastern European countries progresses faster than them. And they don’t want western values to further permeate Russian culture. 

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