Two weeks ago commentators were hyperventilating about a return to the 1930s in Europe, following a Russian invasion-of-sorts into eastern Ukraine. Then President Barack Obama announced that the United States was on a war footing against the Islamic State. Ukraine - and the Russian threat to Europe, for that matter - was promptly if temporarily sidelined. So much for the half-life of stories in an incoherent media age.
Because of that very incoherence, the latest media obsession, if it lasts, will be good news for Russia and China. A renewed American involvement with the Middle East can only ease China's path to dominance in the Western Pacific and Russia's path to increasing influence in Central and Eastern Europe. The decade following 9/11 is instructive in this regard. While the United States was preoccupied with Afghanistan and Iraq, Chinese naval forces emerged as a major geopolitical factor in East Asia, threatening American allies from Japan to the Philippines: 9/11 was literally a godsend to Chinese military planners. Will the videos of the beheadings of two American journalists and a British aid worker be of continued benefit to the Chinese, and a godsend now to the Russians?
That depends upon how much discipline the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon can muster. Power is partially defined by the amount of attention the executive branch can devote to a given problem, and if the executive branch is permanently distracted by one problem to the detriment of other important ones, that constitutes a diminution of American power. For the reality of geopolitics in the early 21st century is simultaneity: many different conflicts occurring in various theaters that all, to greater and lesser extents, have to be dealt with. And Russian aggression in Europe as well as China's military rise in Asia may be in the long run of comparable importance to the Islamic State in the Middle East.
So back to the so-called 1930s in Europe, as the current decade was characterized two weeks ago. Actually, the assertion contains a measure of truth. Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be comparable to Adolf Hitler, but he will, nevertheless, keep pushing westwards until he is stopped. Putin's goal, as has been said, is not the recreation of the Warsaw Pact. The Warsaw Pact, because it was both too time consuming and too expensive for Moscow to maintain, did not work. No, Putin desires instead a more traditional and softer zone of influence in Europe, given that Russia over the course of the centuries has been invaded from the west not only by the French and Germans, but also by the Swedes, Lithuanians and Poles.
For years already, Stratfor has written and argued that the Russians, taking advantage of Europe's fiscal woes, were attempting to buy banks and electricity grids, oil refineries, and natural gas transportation networks, in addition to other infrastructure, even as they extended their energy pipeline network throughout the former satellite states. Meanwhile, a financially weakened Europe has had less political capital to draw countries like Moldova, Serbia, Bulgaria and Ukraine closer into its fold, in exchange for social and economic reforms. This is how Russian influence had been gaining ground in Central and Eastern Europe prior to the 2014 Ukrainian crisis, which was when the Western media finally started paying attention.
That crisis began when a Moscow-supported government in Kiev was toppled by pro-Western demonstrators, thereby undermining Ukraine's buffer state status. The Russians simply had to respond, and they did. Putin annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula that was already home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet and that had a demographic majority of ethnic Russians. Putin next helped instigate a revolt of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. When the actions of those separatists failed to ignite a larger popular uprising, even as Ukraine's Western-supported military threatened to surround the separatists in key areas, Putin dispatched considerably more aid, including anti-aircraft guns, and Russian troops themselves. Thus was the tide turned, and thus did warnings about the 1930s surface.
In fact, Putin has a number of things now in his favor. He knows, that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko knows, that Russia can do more harm to Ukraine than the West can do to help it, since Ukraine - largely because of geography - matters more to Russia than it matters to the West. Putin knows that while Europe has implemented sanctions against Russia, those sanctions are limited by Europe's own requirement for Russian natural gas and the degree to which Europe and Russia are enmeshed in each other's economies. This fact is further exacerbated by Europe's financial crisis, which further inhibits Europe from enacting truly oppressive sanctions: for sanctions, remember, are a two-way street that, once implemented, can hurt Europe as well.
European public opinion, moreover, has been decidedly ambivalent toward Russia. The furor over the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, rather than turning Europe dramatically and permanently against Putin's Russia, has turned out to have been a 96-hour wonder of a news story, another drama with a short half-life in an incoherent media age.
As for NATO and its decision to strengthen rapid reaction forces in Eastern Europe, Putin knows that NATO's ultimate power is a reflection of the size of the defense budgets of its member-states. And with a few exceptions, NATO member-states are not even willing to have their defense budgets equal 2 percent of their gross domestic products. Europe remains a semi-pacifistic geopolitical space, in other words, which by definition therefore is no threat to Russia.
Regarding the United States, as President Obama has indicated, it will neither send troops to Ukraine nor bomb pro-Russian separatists from the air. Furthermore, its assistance to the Ukrainian military has been measured. The American public is less willing to defend Europe against Russia than it was willing to defend Europe against the old Soviet Union. Indeed, the Cold War represented both a tailpiece of World War II and an existential ideological and geopolitical challenge: that is not the case anymore. Putin knows all of this.
Thus, Putin will continue to support separatists in eastern Ukraine. He will continue to use various means of subversion to undermine the government in Kiev and that in the nearby republic of Moldova. He will continue to try and undermine other weak states such as Serbia and Bulgaria, and he will at least try to do likewise throughout Central and greater Eastern Europe, from the Baltics to the Caucasus. As long as the Russian economy and Western ambivalence allows, he will continue on this path. And regarding the effect of even enhanced sanctions on the Russian economy, remember that the Russian people have shown a historic proclivity to be able to withstand suffering, especially if a nationalistic cause is seen to be at stake.
This does not add up to the 1930s, but it does add up to a low-calorie variation of them. Poroshenko knows this, which is why he also knows he must continue to negotiate and compromise with Putin, even on Putin's own terms; and why he must now beg both the White House and Congress for help. Putin, for his part, must wish America well in its war against the Islamic State, and hope that it goes on for a long time.