Vladimir Putin thinks he has a winning formula to restore the global clout of the old Soviet Union. Contemporary Russia is a chaotic, shrinking, and petrodollar-fed kleptocracy. It certainly lacks the population, the vast resources, and territory of its former communist incarnation. For Putin, restoring a lot of the latter without necessarily the former failed communist state makes sense — especially if he can do it on the cheap with passive-aggressive diplomacy and not getting into a shooting war with the far more powerful U.S. If there is a downside for Putin annexing the Crimea in the short term, no one has yet to explain it.
To pull his aggression off, he has adopted most of the repertoire of the proverbial dictator. Threats of a preventative war are leveled, mostly to “protect” Russian-speaking minorities in former Soviet republics. Plebiscites follow, with the usual 90%-plus results. Thugs and goons are sent in to remind the population that the Russian army may follow.
Then Munich-like, compromise is offered to appease the “international community” — before the finale of carving out and annexing territory outright, with the trailer promise of having no more territorial demands in Europe. Putin has given speeches almost identical to Hitler’s 1938 Berlin address promising no more thefts in Europe and a new Germany without the shame of 1918.
Note the bullying nature of Putin. He prefers scanning westward to slice off parts of Georgia, Ukraine, and perhaps next the Baltic states rather than eastward to pick a border fight with, say, his neighbor China. He bets big-time that affluent and leisured Americans in the post-Iraq and -Afghanistan Age fear tough diplomacy as much as they do war, and thus skip the former in fear it might lead to the latter.
Putin provides the necessary premodern optics to match his muscle flexing. He is our modern Mussolini, with the bare chest, the hunting and fishing poses, the judo posturing, and all sorts of various helmets perched in planes and tanks. Putin believes his people would rather feel proud about increased international swagger than have access to universal health care or Head Start — in the manner that a cow-horned, long-ship raider kept power by reminding his otherwise impoverished Vikings that, beside greater stashes of loot, more people feared and honored them than ever before.