During the Cold War, US strategy was to contain Soviet expansion until the Soviets’ inefficient communist economic system collapsed from within. Despite the perversion of George Kennan’s original political, economic, and military containment strategy into one that emphasized primarily military intervention and CIA covert action, the strategy largely worked. However, if the United States had stuck with Kennan’s original concept and scoped down the strategy to contain Soviet power only in areas of the world that really mattered from a strategic perspective – that is, areas of high technology and economic output – the United States could have allowed the Soviet Empire to bankrupt itself even faster by expansion into then-destitute developing world. Communist expansion in backwater areas of the world would have raised Soviet costs in administering those regions and providing military, political, and economic assistance to them. In short, following such a Cold War-Lite strategy, the United States could have avoided getting bogged down in costly, non-strategic wars in Korea and Vietnam and running up huge debts for a peacetime US military build up during the Reagan administration in the 1980s.
Of course, adopting a more restrained strategy would have interfered with the real purpose of US actions vis-à-vis the decrepit Soviet "superpower" – often derisively called "Upper Volta with missiles" in national security circles. Although the Soviet Union was somewhat of a threat, the US foreign policy establishment overstated it to mask US empire building throughout the world. The informal US Empire, as opposed to the formal empires of the British and French, has been supported internally by not only the American foreign policy elite but also the US military-industrial-congressional complex. In short, to a great extent, the US establishment used the Soviet bogeyman as an excuse to remake the world after World War II. If doubt exists among "patriotic" US citizens that their government would do such a thing, they should ask themselves why, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the USSR itself, did the US Empire not contract but instead expand?
And now we come to the very valid complaint that Vladimir Putin and Russia have with US post-Cold War policy. The collapse of Russia’s Warsaw Pact buffer zone was exacerbated by expansion of a hostile military bloc – NATO – through inducting those former Warsaw Pact nations into that swelling alliance. That expansion has continued right up to Russia’s borders. Even prior to the current crisis in Crimea, US fighters were patrolling the border between Russia and NATO-member Baltic states.
Why does Russia think it needs buffer states? From the Russian perspective, Napoleon and Adolf Hitler invaded Russia and the nation lost 40 million people in the two World Wars. Many great powers in history create such buffer zones. For example, in addition to its informal worldwide empire, the United States, since 1823, has reserved the right to intervene militarily anywhere in Latin American under the Monroe Doctrine.
When victors rub the noses of the vanquished in the dirt, they often breed further conflict – as Britain, France, and the United States found out the hard way after World War I. Some of us warned that ill consequences for the United States would follow as it did the same to Russia during the post-Cold War period in the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century – instead of following the model of inclusion of defeated France after the Napoleonic Wars, which led to a century absent a major European conflagration. After the Cold War ended, instead of doing away with NATO and including Russia in the larger European community, Russia was excluded from Europe. Moreover, to get Soviet agreement to reunite Germany, President George H. W. Bush promised then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand; since then, that promise has been repeatedly broken. A humiliated and nationalistic Russia, with a chauvinistic Putin leading it, is a direct outcome such prior US policies.
When Putin saw even more of his buffer zone eroding with the collapse of the Russian-friendly Yanukovych government in Ukraine, he was tired of the humiliation and acted to salvage what was left by annexing the Russian-speaking area of Crimea back into Russia, which had it taken away in 1954. Nearby Ukraine has always been strategic to Russia, containing Russia’s only warm water port and the strategic naval base in Crimea’s Sevastopol; neither Ukraine nor Crimea is strategic for the United States half a world away.
Putin was wrong to invade Crimea, but he is hardly trying to retake Eastern Europe; in fact, his military is probably too weak even to take and hold the hostile western regions of Ukraine. The US government needs to quit fanning hysteria and put Russian intentions and capabilities into proper perspective. It also needs to recognize that Russia is trying only to protect an eroding sphere of influence. The United States would be lucky to have so coherent a national strategy. Currently, the US is trying to retain its role as world policeman, a role that it can no longer afford.