The surreptitious empire: the secret policeman's neo-imperialism
Many Russians feel deep imperial nostalgia for the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately for them, Russia doesn't have the resources to resurrect the Soviet Union; it can only do so in a weakened, surreptitious form: for example, the Eurasian Union. Enter Vladimir Putin, who has claimed the biggest tragedy in his life was the break-up of the USSR. As a secret policeman, his instincts are to do everything covertly and deny the truth when challenged. He's the ideal architect of a surreptitious empire.
Putin's aim is not to send the tanks in, as in 1956 or 1968, but to create compliant puppets in Russia's neighbours. If they get uppity, then he foments civil war and sends covert military backing.
Ukraine is a vital element in this project: it is by far the largest ex-Soviet state apart from the Russian Federation. If it can't be made to do Putins bidding and evolves in a Western direction then the other ex-Soviet states might follow its example and turn away from Russia. It was vital to punish Ukraine for rejecting Putin's puppet Yanukovych.
How to read the mind of Vladimir Putin
Incidentally, its possible that Putin thinks of the European Union as America's surreptitious empire. He thus thinks it is deeply unfair he can't have his own equivalent, the Eurasian Union. One way of getting an insight into the way Putin thinks is to look at what he accuses others of doing. He offers a classic study in psychological projection. For instance, he believed the Euromaidan protesters must have been Western agents because that's how he himself would have arranged matters in a parallel situation.
Building a superpower on a budget
Putins plan to build Russia into a superpower on the cheap has gone horribly wrong because he has been forced to work with shoddy materials. Most of his covert actions rely on irregular forces. As the name suggests, irregulars are difficult to control and lack military discipline. There's a good reason why they have a notorious reputation for massacres and extra-judicial killings in civil wars (the Black and Tans, the various militias in Lebanon in the 70s and 80s or in the former Yugoslavia in the 90s). They are often nothing more than hooligans and gangsters with guns, drunk on a mixture of alcohol, the ability to push civilians around and extreme nationalism. The third of those is the most dangerous intoxicant of them all, as we've seen with Igor Strelkov.
Pyrrhic victory in Crimea
Putin has also stoked up extreme nationalism among the Russian public. His easy victory in Crimea now looks like a Pyrrhic one which has led to a fatal escalation of the war. Putin's home audience craves more success just as Putin is hungry for the high the opinion poll boost gave him. He should have left things at the annexation of Crimea, but he couldn't. He had to try his hand at Eastern Ukraine. However, over recent weeks the Ukrainian armed forces have been gaining ground against the so-called Peoples Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. If those puppet states collapse, then Putin has lost control of Ukraine and lost the war. The jingoists will not be happy and may not be forgiving. The Eurasian Union project will have suffered a massive blow. Yet Putin can't send the conventional Russian army in; he still has to rely on the irregulars and cross his fingers that his agents in Eastern Ukraine are able to rein in their excesses. The irregulars can't win against the Ukrainians with the basic weaponry at their disposal. In particular, they are vulnerable to Ukrainian air superiority. Some time in the last few weeks Putin made the fatal decision to entrust the irregulars with highly sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems. He must have realised what a gamble he was taking. The results have been as predictable as Putin's unconvincing denials of all responsibility.