What if Putin were nice?

We keep hearing that with the invasion of Crimea, Russia has upset the stable post-Cold War order. But I find myself intrigued by the German political scientist Ulrich Kuhn’s argument that, far from being an aggressive power over the past 20 years, Russia has tried to defend the status quo. As the timeline of NATO expansion above might indicate, if anyone has been “re-drawing the map of Europe,” it is not, or at least primarily, the Russians. 

What would Nice Putin, faced with an inexorably expanding EU and NATO, have done? Might he have used the confusion and disarray following the overthrow of Yanukovych to seize the strategically vital (for Russia) port of Sevastopol and its accompanying peninsula, the Crimea? Maybe. Would he have lied about doing it, while he did it? Being ashamed of himself, probably yes. Would he then have aided and even fomented a nasty separatist rebellion in eastern Ukraine, to try to destabilize Ukraine even further? I don’t know. Nice Putin would try to avoid bloodshed. But if the alternative was a Ukraine that joined NATO, we might have found ourselves surprised at how far Nice Putin would have been willing to go.

A decade and a half ago, Russia was inevitably going to end up with someone very much like Putin, if not Putin himself. By 2012, after a decade of strong economic growth and impressive iPhone penetration, Russia might have been ready for someone different. Unfortunately, Putin was not ready, and appointed himself to another term. But whoever comes after Putin is going to be dealing with the same geopolitical situation, the same troubled historical legacy, the same restive neighbors, the same obsolete physical plant.