Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the Crimea is an example of what’s known as a discontinuity, an event with the potential to change everything.
History does not go in a straight line for long. We like to think that events roll forward in a nice, smooth, predictable way, but history has a habit of jumping the tracks and starting in another direction.
By their nature, discontinuities are hard to see coming. One thought exercise would be to imagine what might seem improbable.
I would have thought that, having spent $50 billion to host the Olympics in Sochi, that it might be improbable that the Russians would do something that would immediately render that investment virtually worthless.
But they did.
The Olympics ended on Sunday, Feb. 23, i.e., at the start of last week. Five days later, Russian troops were taking up positions around Crimea, Ukrainian territory.
Whatever international goodwill the Russians thought they would create with the Olympics was instantly marked down to zero.
When Russia started preparing its bid for the Sochi games a decade ago, Putin, then in his second term as president, obviously did not anticipate that less than a week after the end of the games, his troops would be occupying Ukrainian territory, triggering an international crisis, and scaring the fool out of Europe.
Sochi was supposed to help boost Russia’s standing in the world as a civilized player, economically and diplomatically. A place where you might take the family for a vacation, even. That was the narrative arc that Putin has been peddling.
But then Russian armor started rolling, and history jumped the tracks again. Same ol’ bear.