Behind the present flare up in Ukraine
Ever since coming to power in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin has worked unrelentingly to reverse what he views as the thoughtless breakup of the Soviet Union 30 years ago.
While massing troops along Ukraine’s border and holding war games in Belarus, close to the borders of NATO members Poland and Lithuania, Putin is demanding that Ukraine be permanently barred from exercising its sovereign right to join the Western alliance, and that other NATO actions, such as stationing troops in former Soviet bloc countries, be curtailed.
NATO says the demands are unacceptable and that joining the alliance is a right of any country and does not threaten Russia. Putin’s critics argue that what he really fears is not NATO, but the emergence of a democratic, prospering Ukraine that could offer an alternative to Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule, which Russians might find appealing
Russia’s present demands are based on Putin’s long sense of grievance and his rejection of Ukraine and Belarus as truly separate, sovereign countries, but rather as part of a historic Russian linguistic and Orthodox motherland.
In a millennium-spanning treatise last summer titled, “The Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin tipped his hand. He insisted that the separation of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus into separate states today is artificial, due largely to political mistakes during the Soviet period and, in the case of Ukraine, driven by a malevolent “anti-Russia project” supported by Washington since 2014.
His Russo-centric view of the region poses a crucial test for U.S. President Joe Biden, who already is grappling with crises on multiple domestic fronts – the coronavirus pandemic, resurgence of inflation, a divided nation in which a large segment of the electorate refuses to acknowledge his presidency and a Congress that has blocked many of his social and climate goals.
Biden has ruled out military intervention to support Ukraine, and instead has employed intense diplomacy and rallied Western allies to support what he promises will be severe and painful sanctions against Russia if it dares to invade Ukraine. But depending on how the situation plays out, he has admitted he could have trouble keeping all the allies on board.
The Russian leader has already invaded Ukraine once, with little reaction. Russia took Crimea back from Ukraine in 2014 and has supported pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists fighting the Kyiv government in the Donbass region, a quiet war that has killed 14,000 people, more than 3,000 of them civilians.
Putin’s strategy has been to try to recreate the power and a defined sphere of influence that Russia lost with the fall of the Berlin Wall, at least in the area of the former Soviet Union. He has bristled at what he sees as Western encroachment into the countries of the former Warsaw Pact-which had once formed a pro-Soviet buffer between the USSR and NATO.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were allowed to join NATO in 1999, followed in 2004 by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia. Subjected to post-World War II Soviet domination, the countries were eager to join the Western defensive alliance and the Western free-market system to secure independence and prosperity after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
For similar reasons, both Ukraine and Georgia also want in, and have been recognized by NATO as aspiring members of the alliance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked Western leaders to take on Ukraine’s request for membership with greater urgency as a signal to Moscow that the West will defend Ukraine’s independence.
Russia contends that NATO expansion violates commitments made to it after the Berlin Wall’s collapse in exchange for Moscow’s acceptance of the reunification of Germany. U.S. officials deny any such promises were made. Early in his presidency, Putin did not show adamant opposition to NATO. He suggested in a 2000 BBC interview that Russia might even be interested in joining; years later, he said he had raised that prospect with U.S. President Bill Clinton before Clinton left office in 2001.
Now, however, Putin sees the alliance as threatening Russia’s security. But the newer NATO countries take the opposite view. They regard Russia, which boasts the region’s largest military and a vast nuclear arsenal, as the real threat, which is why they rushed to join NATO – afraid that a strengthened Russia might someday try to reimpose its dominance.
Some Western analysts maintain that Putin came to power vowing to restore to Russia a sense of greatness. He seized back economic control from the oligarchs, crushed rebels in Chechnya, gradually strangled independent media and upped investment in the military. More recently, he has banned Russia’s few remaining human rights organizations.
Beyond Russia’s borders, his secret services have allegedly overseen the assassinations of critics and meddled in foreign elections, including offering clandestine support to the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the pro-Brexit campaign in Britain and various right-wing European parties that oppose European integration.
He told an interviewer in 2019 that “All the subterfuges associated with the anti-Russia project are clear to us. And we will never allow our historical territories and people close to us living there to be used against Russia. And to those who will undertake such an attempt, I would like to say that this way they will destroy their own country. I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.”
The challenge for Biden, NATO and the European Union is whether their collective resolve and solidarity can protect Ukraine’s vision of itself as part of the West, and whether Putin’s Russian nationalist ambitions in the region will succeed or fail. More importantly, the Ukraine situation poses a threat that the present talking war between Russia and the West may drift towards an actual shooting war. Needless to say, the best of diplomacy must be conducted to absolutely prevent that from happening since such an outcome could invite World War III.