When the Soviet Union imploded, the consequences seemed irrevocable. After all, a drunk was the Russian president, the economy was a shambles, and the "socialist union" of varying religions, ethnicities and regions was disintegrating and violent conflict real.
More than two decades later, in the second but perhaps not last presidency of that half-naked guy, Vladimir Putin, the erstwhile "soviet" empire is being cobbled together once again. Invasions qua defensive occupations began in the early 1990s in Moldova's Russian-speaking Transnistria region then and now effectively held by the Russian 14th Army. Another armed incursion took place in 2008 against Georgia to permanently sever Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Now the grab of Crimea from Ukraine. Belarus has never really left, its "independence" under Lukashenko just that - in quotation marks. Armenia and most of Central Asia have caved in to Putinesque power projection.
There are strong, 21st century imperialist trends led by Russia's stranglehold on energy and decades-old ties to the security apparatus, army and oligarchy in every post-Soviet state. So, too, are ethnic Russians and Russian speakers a powerful minority everyplace from giant Kazakhstan to tiny Latvia.
The Baltics are now firmly within the EU and NATO, and have separate historical legitimacy. But from Belarus and the eastern half of Ukraine, to much of Central Asia and the Caucasus the Soviet empire's shattered pieces have been reintegrated under Moscow in economic and security terms even if not reclaimed politically. Geostrategically, this says a lot about why Sergei Lavrov has become ubiquitous.
Could this be changed, should it, and why should Americans care? George H.W. Bush did nothing about Moldova. His son did nothing about Georgia. The Crimean occupation will yield only some "sanctions". Why?
Because, bluntly, these places and peoples are not, nor have they ever been, within an American sphere of influence - a 19th century concept that may have to be dusted off a bit. It is not due to 13 long years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan and a global "war on terrorism" that America will not fight for Crimea or South Ossetia or Trasnistria. Rather, it is that most Americans do not know or care. There is no Crimean Tartar diaspora, and few voters outside Cambridge, Massachusetts or K Street in DC could identify these locales or anything about their history.
One hundred years ago, Americans stayed out of World War I until its final year, and likewise did not formally enter the fight against Nazis and Imperial Japan until attacked at Pearl Harbor. Only the fights against communism and terror, and in the 19th century the quest for expansion against Mexico and Spain, did America at first willingly accept the call to arms. For a peninsula on the Black Sea, a sliver of territory on the east of Moldova, or for small pieces of the Caucasus - no American save for a few old warriors or young extremists would accept risking a US life.
Still, there are many less-than-conflictual steps the United States can take in response to Putin's actions this time. Alas, most efforts will be dissipated by lack of unity among our friends and allies.
But all is not lost. First, the "Soviet renewal" is ephemeral. Moscow's strength all depends on largely useless nukes, exported gas and oil, and the perceived political strength of Putin. Nuclear weapons are irrelevant to all of Russia's challenges, and non-fossil fuels or diversified sources of oil and gas particularly in North America will weaken Moscow's trump card in the next ten years. The Chechen uprising will not go away. Russia's demographic crises will not vanish. Putin's star will eventually become tarnished even among Russian nationalists.
Second, Moscow's place on the world stage is highly dependent on Soviet-era influence - in Syria, for example. They support Assad Jr. because his father was a Soviet client, allowed the building of Soviet naval and other military assets, and opposed the Israeli-US alliance. Where else does Russia exert decisive influence --no longer India but perhaps Armenia, Belarus (mentioned above), Cuba? Not exactly a list of powerful allies or sycophants.
Russia's once vaunted space program is now essentially to the ISS up and back plus some launches for other paying customers. The Chinese have now surpassed soviet-era technology, India has launched a Mars probe, and American private enterprise will eventually render Russian boosters a relic of the past.
Third, it is not solely up to the United States to roll back Russian assertiveness. The EU for example has been absurdly flummoxed by events in Kyiv, unable to more than issue protestations and to imply that relations may have to be reconsidered. This despite Moscow's obvious play for influence through energy and finance, invasion, and interference via security forces with longstanding ties to Russia.
Fourth, none of the territories that Russia has absorbed or forcibly controlled has gained economically from Moscow's suzerainty. Except for additional investment in military expenditures, or marginally subsidized energy, most of the benefit will go in the direction of Russia. Imagine, for example, the St. Petersburg ad agencies gearing up for "Visit the New Crimea" campaigns, paid for by the Kremlin. Yet more rotund Russians on the Crimean coast this summer.
This is no Putin victory, and no Obama loss. It is a brazen Russian reassertion of interests. But being back in the USSR is of dubious benefit and no reward.
*Daniel Nelson leads a consulting firm in Virginia.