In September 2009, Václav Havel and 11 other European dignitaries published an open letter challenging the United States and other NATO countries: “Are we willing to accept that the borders of a small country can be unilaterally changed by force? Are we willing to tolerate the de facto annexation of foreign territories by a larger power?” The questions were prompted by the Russian carve-up of independent Georgia after the brief Russian-Georgian border war of 2008. The answers were already evident by the time they were asked: Yes, we would accept the intrusion. Yes, we would tolerate it.
The decisions from which the West recoiled in 2009 informed the actions that Russia has taken in 2014. Five years later, the borders of a much larger country, Ukraine, have been unilaterally changed by force. The conquered territory, Crimea, has been annexed not only de facto, but by a juridical act of the Russian state. The attack on Crimea took Western intelligence agencies by surprise. U.S. intelligence was briefing journalists that Russia would not invade Crimea up until the day Russia invaded Crimea. Too bad no one at the CIA was reading the astute new book on Russia by Ben Judah, a Russian-speaking British journalist who has been reporting on low life and high life in and around Moscow, as well as in the bleak cities of the hinterland, for more than a decade. Judah explains the manic self-confidence—and the insecurity—of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. His core insight: the fragile empire, as his title describes Russia today, is such because it is built on a foundation of plunder.