Russia’s power play for Ukraine takes a page out of the Gipper’s playbook. We should have seen it coming. By By Stephen M. Walt / FP 

There was a great power that was worried about its longtime rival’s efforts to undermine it. Its leaders thought the rival power was stronger and trying to throw its weight around all over the world. In fact, this longtime rival was now interfering in places the declining state had long regarded as its own backyard. To protect this traditional sphere of influence, the worried great power had long maintained one-sided relationships with its neighbors, many of them led by corrupt and brutal oligarchs who stayed in power because they were subservient to the powerful neighbor’s whims.

But suddenly, a popular uprising toppled the corrupt leader of one of those client states, and he promptly fled the country. The leaders of the uprising seemed eager to align with the great power’s distant rival, in part because they admired the rival’s ideology and wanted to distance themselves from the neighbor that had long dominated their much-weaker country. In response, the tough-minded conservative leader of the now very worried great power ordered his government to arm rebel groups in the former client state, to prevent the new government from realigning and eventually to drive it from power.

Sound familiar? Of course it does, but the great power in this story isn’t Russia, the tough-minded leader isn’t Putin, and the troubled weak neighbor isn’t Ukraine. The great power in this story was the United States, the leader was Ronald Reagan, and unfortunate neighbor was Nicaragua.

As the 1980s began, many Americans thought Soviet power was rising and Moscow’s appetite was growing. Such fears helped put Reagan in the Oval Office and convinced the country to launch a costly military buildup.

Reagan was especially determined to stop Soviet encroachments in the Western hemisphere. The Sandinista movement in Nicaragua had just overthrown pro-American dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and had begun cultivating close ties with Cuba. In response, the Reagan administration organized, armed, and backed the anti-Sandinista Contras.

The result? A civil war that eventually cost the lives of some 35,000 Nicaraguans. Those deaths amounted to about 2 percent of the Nicaraguan population; the equivalent percentage in this country would be more than 6 million Americans.

Reagan and the United States acted wrongly then, and Putin and Russia are acting wrongly today. But the parallels between the two cases tell you something often forgotten when high-minded moralists start complaining about “foreign aggression.” However much we may dislike it, great powers are always sensitive to political conditions on their borders and are usually willing to play hardball to protect vital interests. The collective Western failure to understand this basic fact of life is a key reason why the Ukraine crisis erupted and why it has been so hard to resolve.

Don’t get me wrong: what is happening to Ukraine is tragic, and what Putin and Russia are doing is reprehensible. But I also think it was the height of folly for leaders in the United States and Europe not to anticipate that Russia would react as it has. After all, all they really had to do was think back to U.S. policy in much of the Western hemisphere.

If anything, Moscow has more to worry about today than the United States did back in the 1980s. Nicaragua is a tiny country, with a total population smaller than New York City’s. It had hardly any military capability of its own and its potential value as a possible Soviet base was miniscule. Yet U.S. leaders saw this small, poor, weak country as a serious strategic threat, with Reagan warning that failure to overthrow the Sandinistas would leave terrorists and subversives a mere “two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas.”

Today, American officials and hard-line pundits insist NATO expansion was and is not a hostile act, and that support for Kiev poses absolutely no threat to Russia whatsoever. In this view, Putin is either deluded or dissembling when he talks about foreign dangers. Or maybe what really scares him is the possibility that Ukraine might prosper and make his own rule in Moscow look bad.

But even if this view is objectively correct, it is beside the point. It doesn’t matter if our intentions are noble and NATO or EU expansion presents no genuine threat; what matters is whether Russia’s leaders think it is a threat, or worry that it might become one in the future. If Putin and Co. do see things that way — and there’s no reason to believe they don’t — they will be willing to play a large price to keep the threat at bay.

If you’re still skeptical, think back to Ronald Reagan. If the president of the mighty United States — which had the world’s largest economy and powerful military forces stationed all over the world — was sufficiently frightened by the ragtag Sandinistas that he was willing to organize and back an illegal civil war against them, is it just barely conceivable that Putin and Medvedev and many other Russians might be just a mite concerned that a country of some 45 million people right on their border might be getting ready to realign, and bring the world’s most powerful military alliance right up to their doorstep?

But wait, you might respond: We’re the good guys in both these stories. The Sandinistas were communists, for God’s sake, and they were in cahoots with Fidel Castro and the rest of Moscow’s “Evil Empire.” By contrast, Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk and the reformers in Kiev are freedom-loving, market-oriented democrats, eager to root out the corruption that has handicapped Ukraine since independence. What we did in Nicaragua was noble and necessary and therefore defensible, and so is our policy toward Ukraine, while what Putin is doing is just inhuman thuggery. Even worse, it threatens the whole idea that borders in Europe should no longer be altered by force.

I understand the temptation to see this dispute as a simple morality play — West good, Russia bad — but the problem is that moral indignation and fervent self-righteousness is not a policy. Leaving aside whether the United States is entitled to command the moral high ground after Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Libya, etc., moral outrage doesn’t alter basic strategic realities. Given geography, the local military balance, Ukraine’s internal divisions, and Russian interests, advocates of a tougher approach have yet to devise a policy response that isn’t more likely to make things worse instead of better. It is all well and good for a sensible commentator like Timothy Garton Ash to decry what is happening, and insist that Putin “must withdraw his forces and Ukraine [must] have full control of its eastern frontier”; the problem is that he has no idea how to bring this off. It isn’t a failure of Western will or resolve; the plain fact is that escalating the war in Ukraine isn’t likely to work.

To repeat: Russia’s policy is objectionable and Vladimir Putin is not a misunderstood figure who deserves our sympathy. But his conduct is not that different from the actions of venerated leaders like Ronald Reagan, when they felt vital interests were at stake. Devising a lasting solution to the Ukraine muddle requires less moralizing and more strategizing, and the place to start is by understanding what is driving Moscow’s behavior. I have no sympathy for Putin, his policies, or his regime, but understanding that his actions aren’t really that unusual wouldn’t hurt our efforts at all.