Taking On Revisionist Russia

MADRID – For some countries, military or political defeat is so intolerable, so humiliating, that they will do whatever it takes to overturn what they view as an unjust international order. One such revisionist power was Egypt, which resolved to undo its 1967 defeat by Israel and regain the Sinai Peninsula. This was ultimately achieved, but only after President Anwar Sadat embraced a strategy of peace by journeying to Jerusalem. The most ominous case, however, was Germany in the 1930s, which systematically shredded the European order that had emerged after World War I.

History suggests that a revisionist power can be disciplined in two ways. It can be opposed with equal fervor, like that which enabled Europe's conservative powers to defeat Napoleon in 1815 and the Allies to defeat Germany in World War II. Or it can reach the limits of its military and economic strength, as in the case of the Soviet Union at the time of its disintegration.

At that point, the country has a choice. It can, as Germany did, opt for reconciliation with the international order. Or it can take the route of President Vladimir Putin's Russia, and develop a new revanchist strategy – in this case, to overturn the order that emerged from the Soviet Union's Cold War defeat.

Though Putin is undoubtedly the main actor driving this strategy, Ukraine's pursuit of closer ties with the European Union – a move that Europe and the United States generally welcomed – was bound to accelerate it. Putin knew that he could take advantage of Ukraine's ethno-religious division (the eastern regions are overwhelmingly Russian Orthodox and loyal to the Kremlin) to undermine these efforts. Europe, it seems, underestimated Russia's determination to uphold what it considers a core interest in Ukraine.