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A hyper-aggressive Russia, in the view of some Americans, is setting off a new and dangerous Cold War. Loud voices in Washington depict the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, as a richly empowered thug who is using his vast resources to lash out against his neighbors, Europe, the United States and the world. In fact Putin is a dangerously weak thug who is desperately trying to prevent the consummation of a Washington-based plan to surround his country with unfriendly forces.

The immediate reason for American outrage at Russia is its intervention in Ukraine. Washington’s goal is to turn Ukraine and other countries bordering on Russia into political partners. That would bring Western power directly to Russia’s borders. American weaponry already stares into Russia from Latvia and Estonia. If Ukraine can be brought into NATO, as some in Washington openly hope, that would be another step toward the encirclement of Russia.

Rather than allow this to happen, Russia has mobilized its allies in Ukraine to resist. Russia’s enemies, based principally in Washington, consider this a form of aggression. Yet any Russian leader who allowed Ukraine to join an enemy alliance would be betraying his country’s vital security interests.

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All countries try to prevent the emergence of enemies on or near their borders. They seek what geo-politicians call “strategic depth.” It means the seizure, overtly or covertly, of control over enough adjacent territory to protect their homeland.

Russia knows the value of “strategic depth” as well as any country on earth. It was invaded by Napoleon’s army in the 19th century and by Nazi Germany in the 20th century. The reason it brutally subjugated nations in Eastern Europe after World War II was that it wanted a buffer to prevent history from repeating itself.

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the NATO alliance, which is dominated by the United States, saw its chance to advance against a prostrate Russia. Taking advantage of the trusting and naive Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the worst negotiators in modern history, NATO pushed Western military power into the Baltic states. The next step in this plan was to advance that power into Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.

The Ukraine piece of this strategy nearly worked. In 2013 American-supported protesters succeeded in overthrowing Ukraine’s elected government. The new regime endorsed the idea of inviting anti-Russian forces into Ukraine. That raised the specter of more American weapons directly on Russia’s borders. No responsible Russian leader could tolerate this.

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The United States, unlike Russia, respects the sovereignty of its neighbors — but only because they are friendly. If Mexico were to invite Russia to build a military base in Tijuana, or if Canada were to allow Chinese missiles to be deployed in Vancouver, the United States would certainly react. We would not wait to be attacked but would preempt the threat — by military means if necessary. This is precisely what Russia is doing in Ukraine. Rather than wait to be encircled, it is acting to defend its security perimeter.

These cold calculations are little comfort to suffering Ukrainians. Both of Ukraine’s main political factions — those favoring and opposing Russia — are sacrificing their country’s stability to big-power conflict. This does not perturb politicians or generals in Moscow and Washington. They are engaged in a high-stakes political battle in which the lives of ordinary people are expendable. Behind their crocodile tears, few Russian or American leaders care about Ukraine itself. They treat it as a pawn in big-power rivalry.

In the West, President Putin is often portrayed as a scheming despot determined to project Russian power as far as he can. That he is — but it is not the whole story. Putin leads a declining nation that is politically and militarily weak, riddled with corruption, and on the brink of economic collapse.

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By pushing potentially hostile power onto Russia’s borders, Western leaders give Putin a chance to divert public attention away from his failures and cloak himself in the garb of Russian nationalism. Putin now enjoys sky-high approval ratings despite having guided his country into a pitiful morass.

Putin rules Russia in ways most Americans find repugnant, but his job is not to please Americans. Like any head of state or government, though, he must devote himself above all to defending his country against foreign power. Western support for Ukraine may be aimed in part at promoting democracy, but the parallel goal is to intimidate Russia. Putin is responding to this challenge. Before the United States sends weapons or military advisers to Ukraine, we should stop to consider how we would react if Russia did that in Mexico or Canada.

Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.

Related:

Jeff Jacoby: Give Ukraine the military aid it needs for its defense

Nicholas Burns: A resolute US can win struggle with Putin

H.D.S. Greenway: Obama has set a long game with Russia

Vladimir Signorelli: Ruble crisis threatens Putin’s hero-like status

Ideas: Putin’s long game? Meet the Eurasian Union

2014 | James Carroll: New Cold War with Russia? Learn the right lessons

2014 | Nicholas Burns: Three myths about Putin’s Russia

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