Sometimes to understand the present, we must better understand the past. It was the Victorian statesman and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston who best summed up Russia's behavior:
"The policy and practice of the Russian Government has always been to push forward its encroachments as fast and as far as the apathy or want of firmness of other Governments would allow it to go, but always to stop and retire when it met with decided resistance and then to wait for the next favorable opportunity."
Some things never change. How Russia was described by Palmerston in the 1850s is exactly the Russia we see today in Crimea.
There has been a lot of rhetoric by politicians and commentators claiming that what we are seeing today is Cold War behavior and a resurgence of Soviet Russia. Not only is this view wrong, it completely misunderstands Vladimir Putin's intentions.
What we see Russia doing in Crimea today is not Cold War Russia, it is Imperial Russia. Putin's behavior is like that of the Russian Tsars who built the Imperial Russian Empire nation by nation, khanate by khanate and kingdom by kingdom. Sometimes through treaties. Sometimes by the sword.
In the eyes of Russians at the time, the 17th and 18th Century territorial gains which, in part, defined Imperial Russia, were not regarded as "annexations" but as coming into what was already theirs. At the time, Russia's imperial conquests were popularly characterized as acts of liberation of fellow Orthodox Christians from Polish Catholic rule.
Take out the religious dimension and replace it with the need to protect--to paraphrase Vladimir Putin - Moscow's fraternal ties with ethnic Russians and we have a similar situation.
But just like in the 19th century, Moscow today sees itself taking what they consider to be already theirs. Whether it is Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Crimea, the creation of the proposed Eurasian Union, the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, or what amounts to the suzerainty of Armenia in all but name, the empire is being rebuilt--by the sword and through treaties.
For many, the annexation of Crimea will be seen as a game changer in international norms. The annexation of a neighboring country by force is unprecedented in the 21st century. The last time it happened was when Saddam Hussein annexed Kuwait in 1990 to make it Iraq's 19th province.
What we have seen Russia do in the past couple of weeks has been deliberate and calculated. It is part of a grand-strategy currently set in motion by Putin. The events unfolding today in Crimea have roots in the failure of the Russian "reset" between DC and Moscow, the unilateral disarming of Europe which has left Europeans unable to defend themselves, and the disengagement from Europe by the United States. Russia has been able to exploit the situation to its own benefit, calculating that the West will not (or worse, cannot) respond in any significant way. They are right.
As Lord Palmerston knew, Russia will do what it knows it can get away with. No more and no less. What applied to Imperial Russia applies to Putin's Russia. It is through this lens we should see the problem.
The West does not need a reaction. It needs a strategy.