As I wrote before, Reagan did not win the Cold War. Rather, Gorbachev naively believed that a kinder, gentler communism -- "socialism with a human face" was his phrase -- would solve the many problems of the USSR and pacify the people at the same time. In fact, the only people who want to live under a dictatorship are those who are heavily benefiting from the system. Everyone else wants to be free to do their own thing. There isn't enough lipstick in the world to make a communist pig attractive.
George H.W. Bush famously said that he did not want to "dance on the [Berlin Wall]," but he did the next best thing. The U.S. could have channeled its inner George Marshall and worked with Russia to allow it to slowly become a respected member of the West. Instead, Bush merely sent weapons experts to secure its WMDs.
After 9/11, Bush the Younger could have started working with Russia to eliminate Islamists around the world. Instead, Bush channeled his inner cowboy and dismissed any notion of a partnership. Sure, Russian tactics are often crude and violent, but it's much easier to change such things while inside the tent.
And now we have returned to a cold war, with Russia rebuilding defense facilities in Crimea, with the former hero city of Sevastopol being given a full military makeover.
The RAND Corporation's Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO's Eastern Flank estimates that Russia could overrun Estonia and Latvia within 60 hours at the outside. Lithuania is rightly worried, having issued a manual for its citizens in case of war. Lithuania does not border Russia proper, but it does border Kaliningrad, Russia's name for Prussia, which it took as a war prize at the end of WWII. Kaliningrad has also seen a massive military buildup.
"Putin does not believe NATO will defend such, in his view, unimportant countries, risking nuclear confrontation," said Marius Laurinavicius, a senior Lithuanian analyst at Vilnius’ Eastern Europe studies center.
He's probably correct. Would NATO really start a conventional war against Russia after it takes Tallinn and Riga, the capitals of Estonia and Latvia, especially given that the eastern portions of those two countries are full of Russians, with the overall population being, respectively, 25% and 35% Russian? Russia often uses these Russians as a pretext to make demands on the Baltic States, even though Russians living there have much better lives than their cousins in Mother Russia.
The thinking on all this is backward. Putin is counting on limp-wristed leadership on the part of the U.S., but that could easily be turned around. We should continue to work with Russia, both in private and public -- it would be so much better if the U.S. and Russia combined forces to eradicate Islamists -- but we should also announce that any invasion of a NATO country will be met with with tactical nuclear weapons exploded on Russian soil in the first hour of the attack, destroying massed tanks and other vehicles, as well as the nests of S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missile installations in Kaliningrad and near St. Petersburg. We'd need to invite journalists to the location of the tactical nukes, blindfolded for the journey, so Russia knows it is not a bluff. And we would inform Russia that all of its naval ships, both at sea and in port, would be sunk.
Of course, we'd need a president who understands that making empty threats regarding red lines is not leadership.