As the old saying goes, you cannot truly understand a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.
Perhaps Americans, a fortunate tribe, should try to see the world from the vantage point of the Russian people and Vladimir Putin, and, as the poet Robert Burns said, “see ourselves as others see us.”
At 35, Putin was a rising star in the elite secret police, the KGB, of a superpower with a worldwide empire.
The USSR was almost three times as large as the United States. Its European quadrant was half of the Old Continent. The Soviet Empire extended from the Elbe River in Central Germany to the Bering Strait across from Alaska. It encompassed 13 time zones.
North to south, the USSR reached from above the Arctic Circle down to the Middle East. Beyond the contiguous empire were Soviet bases from Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam to Tartus in Syria to Cienfuegos in Cuba.
Consider, then, what the last dozen years of the 20th century must have been like for proud Russian patriots and nationalists.
First, the European empire suddenly and wholly collapsed. East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria all broke away to join the West. The Red Army came home, undefeated, but also unwanted and even detested.
The Warsaw Pact, the rival to NATO, dissolved.
Eastern Europe, which Russians believe they had liberated from the Nazis at a monumental cost in blood, turned its back on Russia, hailed the Americans as liberators, and queued up to join a U.S.-led alliance created to contain Russia.
Then, as Germany was reuniting, the Soviet Union began to break apart – what Putin calls the great tragedy of the 20th century.
One-fourth of the nation he grew up in and half its people vanished. Tens of millions of Russians were left stranded in foreign lands.
Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia departed first, leaving Russia with a tiny enclave on the Baltic Sea, Kaliningrad, the old Prussian city of Konigsberg, isolated and wedged between Poland and Lithuania.
Russia has no other outlet to the Baltic except St. Petersburg at the top of the tiny narrow Gulf of Finland. Russian warships must now pass between Helsinki and Tallinn even to get out into the Baltic.
The great Russian navy of Adm. Sergei Gorshkov is history.
This was but the beginning. With the disintegration of the USSR, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova were soon gone. Russia had now not only lost its Balkan allies Romania and Bulgaria, but all its Balkan borders. Only tiny Transnistria, which broke from Moldova, remained loyal to Russia. But no one recognized it.
In the Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were gone. Russia had lost its border with Iran, Turkey and the Middle East.
As Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan departed, Russia lost half its border with China. Rather than dominating the Caspian Sea, Russia is now confined to its far northern shore. Azerbaijan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan all now have claims on Caspian Sea oil.
Came then the eastward march of NATO to Moscow’s front door.
As NATO allies Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia occupy the east coast of the Baltic Sea, NATO allies Romania and Bulgaria occupy the west coast of the Black Sea. Turkey sits on the south coast of the Black Sea, aspiring NATO ally Georgia the east coast. Should Ukraine join NATO, as John McCain seeks, the Black Sea becomes a NATO lake.
When Putin defended the seizure of Crimea by saying he did not want to visit Russia’s two-century-old naval base at Sevastopol, and be greeted by NATO sailors, did he not have a point?
The vast territorial losses suffered by the Soviet Union would be like the amputations America would have endured had the secession of the 11 states of the Confederacy succeeded in 1865.
Our situation would be comparable to Russia’s if we had lost all our states on the South Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and our ports of Norfolk, Charleston and New Orleans all flew foreign flags.
And how would we have reacted if a Soviet Union, victorious in the Cold War, effected the expulsion of all U.S. troops and bases from Europe and brought Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua into the Warsaw Pact?
State’s Victoria Nuland says we invested $5 billion in re-orienting Ukraine away from Russia. How would we respond if we awoke – as Putin did in February – to learn a pro-American government in Mexico City had been overthrown by street mobs financed by Beijing, a pro-China regime installed, and this unelected Mexican regime wanted out of NAFTA in favor of joining an economic union and military alliance with China?
A U.S. president who landed Marines in Veracruz, as Wilson did in 1914, and sent a 21st-century Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing with an army across the border, would be over 70 percent in the polls, as Putin is today.
And if he seized Baja, as Putin seized Crimea, it would be a cakewalk to a second term.