Western countries have tried to reject Russian threats to invade Ukraine for the second time in eight years.
The talks between the United States, NATO, European officials and their Russian counterparts in Geneva are an attempt to suppress Moscow’s military blackmail — and prevent another attempt by the Kremlin to forcibly change Europe’s borders. The conversations are not going well.
With 100,000 Russian troops gathered on Ukraine’s borders, the Russian government has insisted that NATO officially yield to an impossible set of demands that would effectively return control of Eastern and Central Europe to Moscow. The Biden team and allies have declined, but offered further talks to reassure the Kremlin that NATO is not arguing with a peaceful Russia.
So the stakes of this geopolitical chess game are much bigger than the future of Ukraine. (Although Ukraine is the critical test case.) And the game revolves around Vladimir Putin’s deep-seated desire to mend the Cold War divides between East and West. He wants to rebuild the former Soviet sphere of influence that stretched from Central Europe to Central Asia and sees this effort as a restoration of Russian greatness.
“Putin wants to rebuild the Russian Empire as his legacy,” said Alexander Vershbow, former US ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary general of NATO. “We need to find out if he can be stopped.”
The Russian leader, a former KGB colonel, has never concealed his bitter feelings about the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his 2005 State of the Nation speech, he famously said, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
In the decade since he came to power, Putin has attempted to forcibly restore some measure of Russian control in now-independent countries that he believes have been unjustly snatched from his country’s historic landmass.
Russia invaded Georgia and maintains troops there in ethnic enclaves, as well as in one corner of Moldova. It now has effective control over Belarus through its Russia-dependent dictator. And Putin just sent 2,200 troops to Kazakhstan to help another Russia-friendly leader stage a coup and massacre hundreds of protesters.
And then there is Ukraine, where Russia invaded in 2014, annexed Crimea and established Russian proxies in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. As always with Putin’s military threats, the excuse was that he was protecting Russian-speaking locals from popular “color” revolutions secretly staged by the United States and NATO to overthrow pro-Russian local leaders.
Nonsense. I was in Ukraine for weeks after the 2014 Maidan uprising that led to the hasty flight of President Viktor Yanukovych. This was a real civil uprising against Yanukovych’s kowtow in Moscow, who refused to allow the country to move closer to the European Union.
As for “protecting” Russian-speaking Ukrainians, the leaders of the so-called Donbas “uprising” against the Kiev government in 2014 were sent from Moscow, and it was fueled with Russian aid and weapons.
Putin’s motivation then, as now, was to regain a grip on Ukraine by retaking territory and destabilizing his government. He believes, as he wrote last year, that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people” and that “the formation of an ethnic Ukrainian state hostile to Moscow” is comparable in consequences to using weapons of mass destruction against us.
Yet it is Moscow that has amassed weapons along Ukraine’s border, against a country that poses no physical threat to Russia. It is Moscow that has moved missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian province on the Baltic Sea between two NATO countries. It is Putin who is making threatening moves elsewhere in Europe.
There is little to no prospect that NATO will admit Ukraine anytime soon, nor would NATO place offensive missiles in Ukraine while Russia attacks. “Ukrainians recognize how problematic NATO membership is,” I was told by Bohdan Nahaylo, acting editor-in-chief of the Kyiv Post. But, he added, Russia’s recent military actions are convincing many Ukrainians — along with neutral countries like Finland — that they should try harder to join.
“Moscow’s bellicose tone has forced Europeans to wake up to the… [Russian] threat, be it bluff or real use of force,” added Nahaylo. “Putin may have gone too far this time and united the West. “
Russian threats against Ukraine have bolstered warnings from NATO members in Central Europe, such as Poland, about Putin’s aggressive instincts.
A perfect example was set by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov when he recently tweeted“NATO has become a purely geopolitical project, aimed at taking over areas orphaned by the collapse of the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the Soviet Union.”
Former Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski tweeted right back: “Get this, Russian Embassy, once and for all… We were not orphaned by you because you were not our father. More of a serial rapist.”
The question of the hour, of course, is whether US and NATO allies can prevent Russia from attacking Ukraine again — and whether tougher sanctions and sending more powerful defensive weapons to Kiev will be enough. The Russians are already threatening to stop the talks.
But the first step towards a tough, united counter-action against Putin requires recognizing his goal: restoring Russian dominance over former Soviet satellites that have become independent. That is the precondition for a strong enough response to convince Putin that the costs are too high.