Barack Obama suddenly faces the toughest crisis of his presidency as he confronts Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, and how he responds over the next few days could define his legacy. It is a crisis that has appeared to erupt in his face, in a swift and unexpected turn of events. And yet in many respects what has happened in the Crimean peninsula is no surprise at all. It has been a confrontation in the making for nearly a quarter century: Obama is in effect dealing with the backlash to eastward-expansionist policies that predate the end of the Cold War and span the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The Russian president’s decision to send some 6,000 Russian troops into the border region of Crimea, ostensibly to defend ethnic Russians living in that part of Ukraine, is in some ways a last-ditch Russian response to a two-decade period of eastward incursion by the United States and the West. Through the country-by-country enlargement of NATO and the European Union, Washington and Western Europe have been gradually moving into what used to be seen as the Soviet and Russian sphere, and it’s no surprise that during this period Russian conservatives have tended to view Washington as a bully constantly poking a stick at Moscow’s self-esteem. Putin’s entire rise to political power was built on his pledge that he would permit no more disintegration of Russia, and most of what he has done as president, including his concept of a “Eurasian Union” and his attempts to wean the now-ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich from the EU, has been about reasserting Russia’s historic power in that part of the world — pushing back the relentless tide of the West.