Bears are not especially intelligent, but they are big, fast, and possessed of sharp instincts. Just as with the fable of the frog and the scorpion, bears cannot change their nature. It would be a good thing to tame the Russian bear, to coax him out of his self-imposed cage to join with us rather than fear us. But Russian leaders seem to treasure their isolation and protect it. They have always used external threats to rally their people round the flag pole and distract them from problems at home. When such a threat did not exist, it was convenient to create one.
Stephen Cohen, one of our best experts on Russia, thinks a new Cold War has begun, and he blames Western incursions into the former Soviet orbit as justification for Russian belligerence. From a purely Putinesque viewpoint, that is probably true. From the point of view of, let's say Poland, NATO membership protects them from Russian predations and guarantees a large measure of independence.
There are those on both sides of the divide who, as Jack Nicholson might say, just "can't handle the truth." Creating a benign relationship with Russia is much more complicated than presenting Foreign Minister Lavrov with a hokey "re-set" button. It was unintentionally emblematic that the US State Department had no idea how to spell "re-set" correctly in Russian. Russia fell into chaos in the 90's, and rather than develop a responsible strategy, the US treated it as a sideshow while we concentrated on "more important" areas and engaged in clearly provocative actions towards Russia. But ham-handed Russian actions in the Ukraine are not so much evidence of a failure of Western leadership or will as a manifestation of the failure of Russia to prosper in the post-Soviet era.
Russians and the world must deal with Vladimir Putin who simply cannot discard the thuggish tactics he learned in the KGB - if events and people do not bend to your will, beat them until they do. For the Russian president, that's diplomacy. Most pundits describe Putin as wily, clever, forceful. In a peculiarly Russian sense, he may be all of those things, but he's basically a thug in a suit.
But there is more truth to Stephen Cohen's analysis than it may be comfortable to admit. A friend with intimate knowledge of the Ukraine tells me that when we muck around there, i.e. Sen. John McCain speaking to the demonstrators on the Maidan and encouraging them," it's like waving a red flag at Russia." They may not react violently to our moves to "encircle" them with NATO members, but where the Ukraine is involved, which is considered by most Russians to be an integral and inseparable part of the Russian Empire, their reaction is instinctive, like a bear's.
There is also the matter of ethnic Russians stranded in suddenly independent states in the Baltic and Central Asia. Protecting "Russians" in the former republics is a real battle cry and not just a term for propaganda purposes or to justify a military incursion. It's a sensitive subject in Russia. So that's a real concern on top of the strategic importance of Sevastopol. Remember how the US went into Grenada to protect a small group of American medical students.
My friend says that even in more peaceful times one could see the black & red flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army flying in villages throughout Western Ukraine, while in the Eastern Ukraine his friends much preferred to speak Russian.
Putin considers Ukraine his backyard, and he is running the show. He was humiliated by the turn of events in Kiev and US and EC "meddling." He is meddling, too, of course, and sources in Russia tell me that he alone is making all the decisions regarding the Ukrainian situation.
There might have been other ways for everyone to deal with the unrest in the Ukraine. No one disputes the strategic importance of Sevastopol to Russia. It is a highly dubious notion that a different government in Kiev might insist on curtailing Russian access to its only warm water port. But the world must deal with Putin's xenophobia and his determination to keep the so-called "near abroad" (countries on Russia's periphery) under the paw of the Russian bear. This will require more patience and more wisdom than has thus far been on display on either side.