In 1890, Russian diplomat Konstantin Leontiev made a bold prediction: “To the Russian mind,” he said, “China is to be Russian, Persia is to be Russian, India is to be Russian. It is Russian power which is to restore the cross to Jerusalem…” Leontiev’s grand claim embodied a recurrent trend in Russian foreign policy: Russia pursues more territory expecting greater security, while such expansions only subjects the country heightened international scrutiny. Although it controlled vast swaths of territory, Russia has often felt vulnerable to external alliances and rival powers. This article will argue that the recent military adventures undertaken by Vladimir Putin’s government in Crimea in 2014 are not isolated acts of belligerence but merely the next iteration of this trend.
On March 18, 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, which belonged to Ukraine at the time. On Vladimir Putin’s direct orders, Russian troops took over the Crimean parliament and declared control of the its government. The West was aghast, but they were witnessing merely the latest incarnation of a policy that has defined Russian behavior for centuries. On the same day of the annexation, Vladimir Putin stood before a joint session of the Russian parliament and extolled the strength of the Russian people. Putin called Crimea a “primordial Russian land” and added that the fall of the Soviet Union left Russia as “one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.” Putin identified old Russian possessions in Europe and Asia and seemed to promise their return to Russian control. His interventions in Crimea and Georgia are fulfillments of that promise. Russia’s territorial insecurity stems not only from concerns about ethnic diversity, but also from a fear of Western manipulation.
Putin’s government fears that the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were trying to usurp Russian influence over Baltic territories and believed military posturing would dissuade the West from meddling in the region. John Mearshimer has argued that Putin feared NATO’s presence near his borders because NATO may have been close to inviting Ukraine to become an alliance partner. However, NATO was making no such considerations. Nonetheless, this did not stop Putin from believing so and supporting pro-Russian separatist rebels in Ukraine. What Putin’s long-term goals are remains uncertain. Vladimir Putin does not think in the long-term; he acts on impulse. Russia’s National Security Strategy, released on Dec. 31, 2015, demonstrates this. It is an evaluation of threats followed by a defiant chest-thump against the West. The document identifies external threats and then urges a resurgence of Russian grit and values in the face of security threats in the form of neighboring countries and far away international institutions like NATO. The reader gets the impression that Russia is backed into a corner, with many rivals and no true friends.
As Olga Oliker writes of the strategy, “Russia is also worried about what it terms Western efforts to create flashpoints of tension in Eurasia, which pose a challenge to Russian national interests, the overthrow of legitimate regimes, and provocation of domestic instability and conflict abroad…This strategy asserts that the U.S. and its allies are seeking to contain Russia in order to maintain their dominance of world affairs, which Russia’s independent foreign policy challenges.” That Russia still holds a defensive posture after its 2008 invasion of Georgia, its 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and its recent involvement in Syria leaves one puzzled about what precisely will give Putin’s government satisfaction.
Henry Kissinger has described Russian foreign policy as an eternal paradox. “Torn between obsessive insecurity and proselytizing zeal,” Kissinger writes, “between the requirements of Europe and the temptations of Asia, the Russian Empire always had a role in the European equilibrium but was never emotionally a part of it…Since the Congress of Vienna, the Russian Empire has placed its military forces on foreign soil more often than any other major power. Analysts frequently explain Russian expansionism as stemming from a sense of insecurity.” But insecurity from what? There are two factors: the disparate ethnic groups within Russian borders and Russia’s distrust of Western alliances like NATO. As Robert Wesson writes, “Russian politics has been and remains burdened by the overwhelming task of managing large numbers of alien peoples within its imperial body and at the same time competing and getting along with the Western state system.”
In the Crimean War of 1854, the Balkan Wars in 1875-78, and the Russo-Japanese War, Russia utilized its huge manpower to take unilateral action in pursuit of territorial gains. The rationale behind these conflicts—territorial acquisition to ensure greater security—is part of the same entrenched paradox that motivated Putin’s 2014 intervention in Crimea. For centuries, Russia has possessed great material power, but has felt perpetually threatened by forces it does not fully understand. Awareness of this paradox will help puzzled onlookers make sense of Russian foreign policy. Russian expansionism presents too many opportunities for small military operations to ignite large-scale conflicts, and truly understanding what Russia wants may tip the balance between war and peace.
 Wesson, Robert. The Russian Dilemma (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985): 9.
 Kimberly Marten, “Putin’s Choices: Explaining Russian Foreign Policy and Intervention in Ukraine” The Washington Quarterly (Summer, 2015): 190.
 Marten, “Putin’s Choices,” 189.
 Olga Oliker, “Unpacking Russia’s New National Security Strategy”
 Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 24-25.
 Wesson, viii
 Kissinger, 173.