Growing up during the Cold War, it seemed a dark, dangerous and ever-present part of life. The threat of nuclear Armageddon hung deep in the background and the belief that young Russian soldiers were dedicated to our eventual destruction was part of the times along with black-and-white TV.
That combined with stories from my dad who, as an American soldier, went to meet a group of Russian soldiers who, as allies, were also fighting against Germany. He said they sang songs and drank vodka until late in the night.
Those contrasting impressions of the Russian power telescoped into the recent past when I went on a train tour of Europe with my niece and nephews, stopping for a while in Berlin. Their favorite part of the time there was seeing a piece of the Berlin Wall that was still standing and then touring the small, private museum at Checkpoint Charlie, the iconic point of confrontation between East and West where soldiers manned opposing sentry huts.
Where the college students had breezed through the greatest museum I have ever been to, the National Archeological Museum of Athens, emerging well ahead of me, they lingered far behind in the Checkpoint Charlie museum. I waited for them at a café table directly across from the entrance, and had finished most of a beer by the time they came out.
They were fascinated by the tricks that people used to cross from East to West: the balls covered with tin foil thrown into the sea by a kayaker to throw off the Eastern radar; the two-surfboard stack on top of the car that, hollowed out, provided just enough space for a person; the car seat, apparently empty, inside which a person had hidden.
The museum brought back to mind that great tension between the world's super powers, that while certainly brutal to those behind the Iron Curtain, did not involve child soldiers, rape as a widespread war tactic, gassing of civilians and tribal genocide. It was a great game of strategy, with the world as a chesss board, each side trying to take the other's pieces.
And so when I looked at the map of Crimea, I knew the old game was back on.
Because you just had to look at its position, a huge peninsula like a sentry hut facing Europe, positioned centrally in the Black Sea, where a Russian fleet is based, and it seemed odd to me that anybody doubted that the undeclared soldiers taking over the airports were Russian military.
You knew there was no way the Russians would allow the forces of the west to gain a foothold on that peninsula. The game is not played that way.
Unlike the many conflicts in the world where the death toll continues to tick higher and higher, the occupation of Crimea was done without bloodshed, as it appears so far, aided in large part by a great majority of the population that associates itself with Russia more than the West.
So what is the counter-move.
There is talk, fairly bold, and the consideration of economic sanctions. But talk and sanctions will not alter a newly powerful and energy-rich Russia from pursuing its close-to-home strategic interest.
The ultimate solution in the Ukraine will probably be, as it has been in East-West conflicts of old, a quiet bargain.
Russia has taken Crimea. So what will the other part of the bargain be.
One deal would be that Russia gets Crimea and Europe in effect gets the rest of Ukraine through the stabilization of its current Europe-leaning government. But it could easily get more complicated.
The region is naturally split by the Dnieper River that runs from north to south into the Black Sea and breaks the country roughly into a West-leaning western half and an East-leaning eastern half.
The geopolitical question remains whether both halves will go into the western sphere of influence, or whether there will be a further division, as there was in centuries past.
A summary look at Ukraine's history shows that the region, a central European breadbasket, has been fought over for centuries. In the 1600s, at the conclusion of a devastating 30-year war called "The Ruin," the so-called "Eternal Peace" was a deal between Poland which took the land west of the river and Russia which took the land east of the river.
A student of history could well believe that the Russian gambit is not over.
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