Russia seems to have learned little in the 160 years since the Crimean War. Launching ships and sending armies to grab land may work in the short term, but there are always negative consequences that bring big regrets later.
In 1853, Russia's man in charge was Czar Nicholas I, who hoped to take advantage of the weakening Ottoman Empire and expand Russian power and influence around the Black Sea and beyond. In 1853, using the pretext of protecting Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman-controlled Holy Land, Russia went to war and quickly destroyed the Ottoman fleet. Not a bad start.
However, by the time the war ended three years later, things had not worked out so well. France and Britain had won the conflict, and the weakness of Russia’s serf-dominated armies was exposed. Nicholas was dead and the czarist system began a decline that would lead to the monarchy’s 1917 demise. War debts were so high that the new czar, Alexander II, decided to sell Alaska to the United States because he could not afford to defend such a distant territory.
Russia’s current autocrat, Vladimir Putin, may be thinking his easy capture of Crimea from the fledgling government of Ukraine is a bold and clever move. Under the pretext of protecting Russians, he may have plans to snatch Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern industrial region. And he can act with the certain knowledge that, unlike the 1850s, Western powers have no stomach for war.
But that only proves Western leaders have learned the lessons of history. In the intertwined world of the 21st century, the power that really counts is economic power. Sure, the United States and the European Union have no inclination to send troops to defend Ukraine, but they have economic weapons that could severely undermine Russia’s tottering economy.
The Russian ruble is already tumbling, and Mark Adomanis, writing in Forbes, says that is just the beginning of trouble for Putin’s regime: "The economic costs to Russia will be severe. The Moscow stock market is going to get absolutely clobbered when it opens tomorrow, and many foreign investors are going to bolt for the exits as quickly as they can. Depending on the severity of the situation in Ukraine, the Russian financial system could come screeching to a halt." And all of that is happening even before the U.S. and Europe follow through on threats to impose sanctions, freeze Russian assets and toss Russia out of the Group of Eight.
Meanwhile, valid questions about the legitimacy of the new government in Kiev will be set aside by American and European leaders. Instead, they will rush to prop up the Ukrainian economy as a display of solidarity with the pro-Western factions whose ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych started the crisis in the first place.
On Monday, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani went on Fox News and weirdly praised Putin for his ability to act quickly and decisively. Unlike President Obama, Putin is "what you call a leader," Giuliani said.
We can be grateful Giuliani never got close to being our president. Acting without considering long-term consequences is not leadership; it is the sort of unthinking recklessness that started the Crimean War in the 19th century – not unlike the "resolute" tough-guy idiocy that sent American troops rushing off to Iraq for a decade of misery at the start of this century.
Let’s let Putin play that game if he chooses. If Obama and European leaders employ their economic weapons smartly, Putin can be taught a harsh lesson about real power in the modern world.