03/05/2014 11:50 am ET Updated May 05, 2014

Putin's Cool War

Most moderately well informed people in our digital age are aware of the current mess in the Ukraine right now, specifically the Russian occupation of the Crimean peninsula as the new Ukrainian government struggles to stabilize its country amid much harping from the Ukrainian president about how he's still leader (after he fled the country, of course).

No one's really sure what's going to happen, or where exactly each actor's responsibilities lie. This is a deceptively deep puddle: on the surface, you have the fact that Crimea is the sovereign property of the Ukraine and Russia is, by most definitions of the word, occupying it. But Crimea is vocally pro-Russian and the Kremlin's marching orders have been met with general warmth by its residents.

But there are multiple intricacies beneath this. The Ukraine is realistically divided into pro-Russian east and pro-EU west. The riots that sparked the free-fall came about because pro-EU Ukrainians were furious that President Ianoukovitch backed out of a trade agreement with the EU, an action nearly simultaneous with a Russian offer to buy $15 billion of Ukrainian debt and slash gas prices. The country became a proxy battleground for the economic tug-of-war between East and West, in the indirect way so many others have become over the years.

But then it took a whole new leap. Unlike other recent narratives of popular uprisings, the Ukraine story swerved in a new direction when Vladimir Putin decided he would not only shelter Viktor Ianoukovitch, but that he would treat Ianoukovitch as the Ukraine's lawful leader, consider the movement that toppled him to be radical and the government it spawned illegitimate, and answer his pleas for help by sending troops to protect the Russian speakers in Crimea. Almost all of the preceding sentence was in the vein of the rhetoric Moscow has used.

Many people much smarter than me have weighed in on this, mostly from a Western perspective. The dean of Tufts' very own Fletcher School of International Law & Diplomacy, for one, warns of a Cool War due to rising Washington-Moscow tensions. I'd give that opinion weight, since Admiral Stavridis is the former Supreme Commander of NATO.

What is utterly remarkable to me is how swiftly this comes on the heels of whatever goodwill Russia generated by proving to be a competent host of the Winter Olympics. Sochi is only a few hundred miles from Crimea, but it feels like it was a different time.

As both a student of history and a student of political theory, I've always found the phrase "history repeats itself" amusing, not least because if you ask a historian what they think of it they'll usually scoff (if they dignify it with a response at all). What happened in Putin's head? Why is he doing this now?

But the question on my mind, as obvious as its answer may seem, is what does this say about Vladimir Putin? And what does that tell us about how to deal with him?

The sanctions and economic pressure with which Putin is being threatened is the accepted way for the international community to discipline errant members, and has been among the established powers for decades.

But what happens when the zealotry so easily associated with the regimes in Iran or North Korea manifests itself in some way, shape or form in an established power? What happens when the slight instability and motivations of grandeur and civilizational honor that cause certain states to be held at arm's length, that are associated with weak or new or simply foolish leaders, show up far later than they're expected in a country is supposed to have outgrown them?

Put simply, what we're seeing in Russia is a refusal to bow to the majority opinion. In an hour-long news conference in which he broke his silence, he spoke at length about the Ukraine. But he was describing a series of events fundamentally different from the story we've heard in the States and the one repeated in Western Europe, a narrative of conspiracy and Western intervention and radicalism against which his Russia would stand.

It's sort of tricky to even assume that economic sanctions carry the same weight they normally would, because apart from Putin's ideological bent the Russian decision to occupy Crimea wasn't a fiscally sound one. Moscow had to know that the ruble, depreciating steadily since the start of 2014 and already under strain given the size of the check they wrote to buy Ukrainian debt, would go into free fall as investors learned of Russian occupation intentions and jumped ship.

I suppose, at a macro level, it says a great deal that America has no intentions of wading in militarily. Had this been the Cold War, I harbor little doubt that the CIA would have deployed agents as soon as whispers of revolt spread through Kiev.

But this is the challenge facing the United States. When a state that already has a seat at the table decides to act on their own, adheres to a seemingly different version of reality, and most worryingly makes the conscious decision to set themselves, their wants and needs and aims, against you and yours, can you reach them?

When someone too powerful to ignore and too influential to corral rolls up their sleeves and wades into a vulnerable state that's trying to sort itself out, a nation that would stand no chance on its best day, what do you say?

When that powerful person is dispensing with a problem on their doorstep and has set themselves and their civilization against you, blaming you for the mess, what is your leverage?

We've been spoiled by decades of the states that matter sticking to the larger agenda, working toward the greater good as a way of serving their own self-interest. Dialogues had been opened, sanctions had proven fruitful, and cooperation and military peace among the big dogs had settled in.

Then Vladimir Putin decided to stop playing along.