Most of the popular history books on the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 you can find in Moscow bookstores today tell the story of Lenin and his comrades not as a popular uprising, but as a coup d’état, engineered by — and here you have a choice — the German general staff or British intelligence agents. Any time and any place when people demand power, the situation gets worse. Loyalty and stability are at the center of the Kremlin’s universe, a universe dominated by insecurity and fear of the future.
And what is on Kremlin’s mind is not Syria, or even Ukraine, but Central Asia, a part of the post-Soviet space in which authoritarian leaders are aging, economies are stagnating, millions of restless young people are unemployed and eager to emigrate, and radical Islam is on the rise. Russia sees itself as the guarantor of stability in the region, but it fears instability coming. Central Asia today reminds the Kremlin of the Middle East a decade ago. Could Syria teach America to watch its words and mind its business when the next crisis comes?
President Putin wants to teach America a lesson, but he also speaks to a Europe flooded by a million refugees and haunted by the specters of radical Islam and demographic anxiety. Yesterday the European Union hoped to transform its neighbors; today it sees itself as a hostage. Mr. Putin wants to persuade Europe that, as brutal a dictator as Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya was, he was willing and able to protect the borders of Europe, something the new democracies could not do.
Is a badly shaken Europe prepared for this message?