Why There Could Be a War Over Ukraine

Forget the Budapest Memorandum, and definitely forget President Obama's latest, and very forgettable, comments on Ukraine. Russia is not standing on the "wrong side of history." That doesn't mean anything at the moment, it's just more fanciful thinking from our celebrity president.

Before Obama declares which side of history is "right" or "wrong," he would be wise to make sure to be on the winning side. Thus far, he has done very little to ensure that.

The West needs to look at events from Putin's perspective, just to understand what Putin may be thinking and determine what he may do next. What are his aims? What goal may he be pursuing by seizing Crimea?

NATO has been expanding east ever since the end of the Cold War. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Europe's former East Bloc and Soviet satellite states have mostly sought to distance themselves from Moscow and align with Washington and NATO. Poland and the Baltic States, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are all nations that suffered Soviet domination and have since aligned with the West. They're all NATO and EU members now.

The EU is primarily an economic union. NATO was formed as a defensive alliance to counter the Soviet Union's expansionism after the end of World War II. The US and 11 European allies formed the defensive North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949; the USSR created the Warsaw Pact as a rival alliance in 1955. Those two alliances dominated Europe for the next 45 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

But post-Soviet Russia, and in particular, Vladimir Putin, does not see NATO as defensive at all. He sees NATO as an expansionist alliance, dominated by Washington, built to destroy the USSR and now maintained to pin Russia back to limit its influence. Putin also sees the collapse of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th Century. He has sought to build the Eurasian Union as a Moscow-centered alliance to counter NATO. It is set to come into fullness in 2015. Its full purpose may be to resurrect the Warsaw Pact.

Putin's opinion that NATO survives to pin Russia back is not entirely inaccurate. NATO's purpose is defensive. But its main purpose continues to be to defend Europe from Russia. That's why the freed East Bloc countries have mostly joined NATO, Belarus and Ukraine being among the exceptions. As the freed Warsaw Pact countries have joined NATO, NATO's "borders" have moved east -- toward Russia.

Ukraine's majority has signaled its desire to join both NATO and the EU. For Putin, Ukraine and Belarus are two countries on its border that it does not want to see join what it regards as an offensive alliance aimed at Moscow. Belarus is a fairly reliable Russian ally, but Ukraine is not. Putin appears to find potential Ukraine membership in NATO and the EU totally unacceptable.

Ukraine's history with the Soviet Union is bitter. Stalin intentionally starved millions of Ukrainians to death in the 1930s famine. The Soviets were hostile to Ukrainian language, history and culture. A Ukrainian rebellion fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets during World War II. Ethnic Ukrainians want nothing to do with Russia, but Ukraine is not a singular ethnic polity. Its ethnic Ukrainian majority dominates in the western part of the country, and it has a sizable Russian minority. In the east and Crimea, ethnic Russians make up a majority, and they still identify with Russia.

Now, in the context of Russian paranoia about NATO's expansion, how should we expect Putin to have received news that US Ambassador Victoria Nuland turned up in Ukraine handing out treats to Ukrainian anti-Russian protesters at the beginning of the Maidan protests in December 2013?

Should we be surprised that Russia is treating the protests as if they were orchestrated by Washington to topple a Russia-aligned Ukrainian government and replace it with one that would look west again? Or at least, that Russia is pushing that storyline as part of its propaganda?

Should we be surprised that Russia bugged Nuland's phone and released a recording that could have pushed the US and the EU apart?

Should we be surprised that Russia used the Sochi Olympics to present its softer side, but once the games were over, Putin was back to his old KGB self?

Given Russia's history of subjugating Ukraine and using it as a buffer against Europe, and given Putin's aim to build a Eurasian Union as another counter to NATO, and given Russia's historic paranoia toward the West, should we be confident that Putin merely wants Crimea, and not all of Ukraine, and after that, the Baltic States north of Belarus too?

The Baltic States are NATO allies with the US. An attack on one NATO ally is an attack on all of them, according to the treaty. Knowing this, Putin is measuring Obama, NATO, the EU -- all of his adversaries -- via his invasion of Crimea. What is he learning?