Like Hitler, Mr. Putin does not know exactly which future aggressive act will prompt an American and European reaction. Until then, though, he is willing to continue gambling that he can restore some more of the lost empire of the czars and commissars — and with it more Russian honor, influence and pride — without consequences.
If history is any guide, these emotions are driving Mr. Putin to grab things that are not his. He acts now because in the era of failed reset diplomacy and recent empty American deadlines, red lines and step-over lines, he feels the old U.S. deterrent is absent or dormant. He will keep up his aggression until he senses that the increasing risks no longer warrant the diminishing returns of absorbing his neighbors.
We should stop trying to psychoanalyze Mr. Putin, arguing that he is really weak or is an adolescent showing off his machismo — much less that he has legitimate grievances.
Instead, Mr. Putin believes that the more he grabs from others, the prouder his otherwise downtrodden citizens will become, the more respect they will earn abroad, and the less likely others will fool with him.
Until that is no longer true, Mr. Putin will continue.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.