Shorter John Cassidy: Putin may have a set of motivations that are rational by his lights, but I think he’s crazy:
Putin is a Russian nationalist[*] through and through, and, historically, an important part of Russian nationalism has been expansionism. When you are dealing with a something as combustible as that, you can’t always rely on rational behavior to prevail.
The problem with Cassidy’s article is that logic that he ascribes to Putin actually makes perfect sense. Putin may think that the short-term economic and political costs of annexing the Crimea (and possibly Eastern Ukraine) is worth the longer term benefit of fully recovering the best port in the Black Sea, taking a large chunk of population and resources, and generally showing Eastern Europe and Central Asia that Russia is still a power with which to be reckoned. The rump Ukraine, he figures, will move towards the west at first, but eventually become Finlandized. He might also be thinking of that recent figure of regional hegemony, Ronald Reagan, who funded sympathetic forces in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere, and invaded Grenada, all in an attempt to “roll back” communist influence. Scholars have given those actions the gloss of rationality by labeling them part of the “Reagan Doctrine;” not so Putin. There will be no gloss for him. Cassidy does not like the logic but that’s not the same thing as the logic not existing.
* Very Serious Pundit Language Note: Aggressive American leaders are “patriots.” Aggressive foreign leaders are “nationalists.”