The crisis in Crimea reminds us there are two kinds of rulers around the world: those who think about the past and those who think about the future. If it were not abundantly clear before, it is now–Vladimir Putin is a man who thinks about the past. His country will be the poorer for it.
If you read and listen to commentary, you will hear many stories about Russia’s long association with Crimea, a relationship that dates back to the 18th century. Crimea was the first great prize wrested from the Ottoman Empire, a mark of Russia’s rise to great-power status. It also gave Russia something it had never had: a warm-water port with direct access to the Mediterranean and thus the wider world.
Sevastopol, the Crimean port city where the Russian Black Sea fleet docks, is an excellent natural harbor and is steeped in history. It was the site of the great siege of the Crimean War in 1854. (When Mark Twain visited the city just over a decade later, he remarked that “ruined Pompeii is in good condition compared to Sebastopol.”) Russia held on to the city even though it lost the Crimean War. Almost a century later, it maintained its grip on Sevastopol after reclaiming Crimea from the Nazis in early 1944.
Then came the strange and fateful twist in 1954 when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine–an internal transfer within the Soviet Union. Why Khrushchev did this remains somewhat unclear. He had made his mark as a young communist leader in Ukraine, and the occasion of the transfer was the 300-year anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine. But almost certainly the larger reason was that the original inhabitants of Crimea, the Tatars, had been forced out of the region by Stalin, and Ukrainians were being sent into the area to repopulate it. Making it part of Ukraine would accelerate the movement of people. Whatever the cause, the consequence has been lasting and dramatic. Crimea exists outside Russia legally and politically, but it has a Russian majority, and Moscow thinks of it as part of the motherland.
That is the history. But history is bunk, as Henry Ford said. By that he did not mean that it was unimportant but rather that people should not be trapped by it, that they should think not backward but forward. His exact words were “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.”
The history that leaders make today has much less to do with geography or constraints from the past. When Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965, the experts said the small, swampy town in the middle of nowhere could not survive as an independent country. It is now one of the world’s great trading hubs, with a per capita income higher than that of its erstwhile colonizer, Britain. That’s because its founder, Lee Kuan Yew, thought less about the disadvantages of history and more about the advantages of the future.
When the nationalist Chinese were abandoned by the world on a tiny island after the communist revolution in mainland China, most assumed the place would not survive. Yet in the most precarious position, with zero natural resources, Taiwan became one of the world’s fastest-growing economies for four decades. That’s because it didn’t worry about geography; it obsessed about competitiveness.
When Paul Kagame took over Rwanda, the country was more deeply ravaged by history than almost any other nation, scarred by a genocide of a speed never seen before in history. Rwanda is also landlocked, with no geographic advantages at all and a bloody war in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. But Kagame looked to the future, not the past. The result is a small African miracle, a country that is healing its wounds.
There are those who are still trapped by history and geography. Think of Pakistan’s generals, still trying to establish “strategic depth” in their backyard while their country collapses. Or think of Putin, who is, as Secretary of State John Kerry said, playing a 19th century game in the 21st century. He may get Crimea. But what has he achieved? Ukraine has slipped out of Russia’s grasp, its people deeply suspicious of Moscow. Even in Crimea, the 40% who are non-Russian are probably restive and resentful. Moscow’s neighbors are alarmed, and once-warming relations with Poland will be set back. Trade and investment with Europe and the U.S. will surely suffer, whether there are sanctions or not.
Meanwhile, Russia continues along its path as an oil-dependent state with an increasingly authoritarian regime that has failed to develop its economy or civil society or to foster political pluralism. But no matter–Moscow controls Crimea. In today’s world, is that really a victory?
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This appears in the March 17, 2014 issue of TIME.