This popped up as what was effectively a side note to another story, but it seems to be indicative of the new, swaggering attitude of Russia these days. Their Foreign Ministry official, Mikhail Ulyanov, had a few casual comments about some of the most recent territory seized by Putin, and it certainly sounds familiar to those of us who were around during the 80s.

Russia has the right to deploy nuclear arms in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine last year, a Foreign Ministry official said on Wednesday, adding he knew of no plans to do so.

“I don’t know if there are nuclear weapons there now. I don’t know about any plans, but in principle Russia can do it,” said Mikhail Ulyanov, the head of the ministry’s department on arms control

During one of the panel discussions on 21st century Russia which we attended last week, the topic of their nuclear weapons program came up several times. One speaker mentioned that current intelligence indicates that Putin has been flushing large sums of their oil money over the past several years (until the prices tanked) into a program aimed at reinvigorating their nuclear arsenal. In previous years, a lack of maintenance and even black market problems had international observers wondering if their readiness was in decline, and it probably was. But Putin seems to have prioritized both their tactical weapons capability and their naval strength. (We’ve already seen that their long range bombers are still in good repair.)

Putin may have no interest in helping lift his people out of poverty or modernizing his nation, but he’s certainly interested in returning Russia to the role of an empire, if not a superpower. With that in mind, would it really be all that surprising if he put some nukes in Crimea? (That is, of course, assuming that they’re not already there.) If this situation expands in any way and catches wider public attention, it’s no doubt going to bring renewed scrutiny to Barack Obama’s decision to pull back on our missile defense program in eastern Europe. Just what we need, right? Because it’s not as if we don’t already have enough people to worry about fighting these days.

A way must be found to deal with Putin, not over individual atrocities inside his own country or specific border incursions, but in terms of his long range plans. If we keep our gaze focused elsewhere and ignore him for long enough, we’ll be back in the cold war before we know it.