If you thought we had put the Cold War behind us, you may have to think again. The actions and the rhetoric between Washington and Moscow over Ukraine are eerily familiar for those of us who lived through and survived, against the odds, it seemed, the Cold War of the 1950 and '60s.
If Vladimir Putin is another Khrushchev, should Barack Obama be another Truman, and should Ukraine be another Korea? Russia has reclaimed Crimea from Ukraine, but it hardly seems like a felony in international terms. Crimea had been part of Russia until Khrushchev gave the historic peninsula to Ukraine for reasons that are now obscure at best. Crimea plays a giant role in Russian history and was the focus of a major war, the Crimean War, that still lives in Russian legend and folklore.
Russia reclaiming Crimea does not seem to be such a big deal, really. But if Putin also wants to take over all or part of the rest of Ukraine, that's another matter. Putin is said to believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy that he hopes to correct by re-establishing the Russian Empire. If this assessment is true, Ukraine is not the only endangered sovereign state. Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria should also be nervous.
The United States and Western Europe should oppose Putin's attempt to reverse history and should confront Russia's expansionist maneuvers. But confront how? Economic sanctions and other diplomatic efforts can isolate and hurt Russia's economy and prestige. Confrontations should fall short of military confrontation, as they did throughout nearly all of the Cold War. Do Americans want to go to war, even nuclear war, over Ukraine, a nation that most Americans can't find on a globe? Surely not. Ukraine is not a NATO member, and the United States has no obligation to defend it against aggression. But the destabilizing of the post-World War II world should worry all nations. Putin, like Hitler before him, has shrewdly taken territory and maneuvered other nations to do his will. Hitler's mistake was that he didn't stop with Austria and Sudetenland.
The question is where Putin will stop, or is he willing to risk hot war to achieve his grand ambitions.