Many commentators are comparing Russia's moves in the Crimea to the Soviet Union in the Cold War or to Nazi Germany before World War II. Yet, while Russia's actions are indefensible, these comparisons are far off the mark for understanding Russia today.
Putin's Russia hardly resembles the Soviet Union in the Cold War. Russia today lacks its strong military capability. Soviet victories over the Wehrmacht at Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk-Orel and Berlin played a major role in victory in World War II. Today's modest Russian military struggled to avoid total defeat at the hand of poorly equipped Chechen forces (1994-1996) and to eke out a modest victory in a replay of that war (2000-2006). Its weak conscript army beat weak Georgian forces in 2008. The fall of the Soviet Union forced the Russian army to retreat from the center of Europe even 1,000 miles eastward to defend Moscow.
Russia in 2014 is far smaller than the Soviet empire of 1948-1988. The population of the Soviet Union and its six Eastern European satellites numbered over 400 million people. Having lost its Eastern European Empire and 14 other non-Russian Soviet republics, Putin's Russia has 140 million people, a third of its former size.
Demographically, the future looks bleak. The Russian population, with an average of 1.3 children per family and low life expectancy (60 for males, 73 for females), has declined an average of 700,000 people per year until last year. Massive alcohol consumption (2 billion liters of hard alcohol a year) remains a serious problem.
Internationally, the Soviet Union, with its Communist ideology, had a strong influence on much of the Third World and 13 other Communist states. Putin's conservative nationalism lacks any international ideological appeal.
Economically, Russia is reduced to being a petro-state with 80 percent of its exports primarily oil and gas, which is the pattern of a Third World country. Russia also has weak consumer, agricultural and high tech sectors. Its two trillion dollar GDP is barely 13 percent of the American GNP.
If Russia does not resemble the Soviet Union in the Cold War neither does it resemble Nazi Germany. It lacks a fascist ideology that venerates war, an ideology that venerates a Fuehrer and a history of defeat and economic depression that propelled Nazi Germany into war. Russians have never forgotten the 27 million people killed, the 25 million living in holes in the ground in 1945 and the massive property devastation of World War II. Putin lacks key allies like Imperial Japan and advanced technology for Nazi-like adventurism. Putin is hardly a reckless, megalomaniacal adventurer but rather a careful game player who takes advantage of opportunities brought about by a partial American withdrawal from the world.
While Russia was kicked out of Egypt in the 1970s, General al-Sisi's Egypt, upset over Obama's support for Islamic Brotherhood, is buying two billion dollars worth of Russian weapons. The Russians see victory for their Syrian ally Bashar Assad after the United States, settling for a chemical weapons ban, backed off military action. They witness Saudi Arabia, a close friend of the United States since 1945, asking Russia for help in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. The Russians welcome the Israelis sending its Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to Moscow. Japan, a close American ally since 1945, has sent Prime Minister Shinzo Abe twice to Moscow recently and placed him next to Vladimir Putin at the Sochi Olympics.
Moscow sees Europeans unable to replace Americans. With a 12 percent unemployment rate, a .1% GDP growth rate and serious problems in Eastern and Southern Europe, the Europeans are unlikely to battle over Crimea for Ukraine whose GDP per capita is less than Albania's.
As in Georgia in 2008, Putin is trying to regain parts of the former Soviet Union heavily populated by Russians. A Crimean referendum in an area 60 percent Russian is likely to vote to reunite with Russia. Russians will hail the accession of Crimea, which had been a part of Russia from 1782 to 1954. The Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol is a major military asset for Russia. Russian gas exports to Europe are a major trump card, especially in the winter. Finally, there is room for prolonged negotiations as Russia cares far more deeply about its Russian neighbor than the EU or US.
Is this a replay of World War II or the Cold War? No, it's real politics in the 21st century.