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Russian President Vladimir Putin.SHAMIL ZHUMATOV/Reuters

Chris Alexander was Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, UN deputy special representative of the secretary-general for Afghanistan and federal minister of citizenship and immigration.

For seven years, Europe has been at war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014, just as his country’s Winter Olympics were closing. The conflict has cost at least 4,600 Ukrainian soldiers their lives in a fight to uphold basic principles of international law.

How did Mr. Putin become the first invader Europe has seen in decades?

The answer can be found in his belief that Russians and Ukrainians are one and the same. He even published an essay to that effect in July, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” in which he described them as “one people” – echoing Adolf Hitler’s fixation on conjoining Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland into one state, by force if necessary. Mr. Putin’s intentions for Ukraine’s distinct language, identity and culture are inherently to erase them.

On its surface, the plan does not seem to be going well. Ukrainians have fought Russia’s military onslaught to a standstill, limiting the occupation so far to only 7 per cent of Ukraine’s territory. And with a new national purpose awakened, Ukrainians have reoriented their trade toward Europe: 62 per cent now favour EU membership. Russia, for its part, has become poorer and more isolated.

Yet Mr. Putin looks set to double down, with about 100,000 Russian troops in a state of high combat readiness in and around Ukraine.

Why? He believes he has knocked the world’s most powerful democracies off balance. And there’s evidence he’s succeeding.

Despite Barack Obama’s ill-fated “reset” of relations, and Donald Trump’s humiliating subservience to the Kremlin, Joe Biden’s administration still quixotically seems to aspire to a return to “normal” with Moscow. Meanwhile, Germany’s outgoing Chancellor, Angela Merkel, vetoed NATO membership for Ukraine and approved the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, that bypasses Ukraine, in a troubling, misguided effort to make Mr. Putin “tractable;” instead she has left Ukraine, Germany and the EU more vulnerable than ever to his aggression, political corruption and energy blackmail. France has similarly appeased the Russian President, while Brexit, a masochistic policy disaster heartily endorsed by Moscow, has sidelined Britain.

Mr. Putin’s aggression preys on such weakness. He invaded Ukraine in 2014 only after U.S. “red lines” in Syria turned out to be meaningless. His current troop buildup comes after another catastrophic U.S. failure in Afghanistan and amid a new burst of warlike propaganda.

His obsession with Russia’s “sphere of influence” follows in the footsteps of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, who used every hardball tactic in the book, including invasion and occupation, across Central and Eastern Europe after 1917 and again after 1945. Mr. Putin’s mischief has been focused on Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, while meddling in the U.S. and the EU to keep us off balance. He is even pressuring Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko to intervene in Ukraine alongside Russia.

But a larger and more overt invasion of Ukraine would make Mr. Putin a full international pariah, causing Russia’s economy to hemorrhage further. Indeed, even without a full NATO mandate, Central Europe would join Ukraine in its fight, as key members of the Bucharest Nine Format – founded after 2014 – have signalled. The U.S. and NATO would also be compelled to react strongly.

There is already leadership on these issues within NATO from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, has articulated a regional vision of freedom, integration and prosperity.

Canada, too, is now deeply involved in Mr. Putin’s war. The largest free Ukrainian diaspora in the world lives here, and the Canadian Armed Forces are training Ukrainian soldiers through Operation Unifier. To end Mr. Putin’s occupation, Canada needs to be a catalyst for bolstering Ukraine’s defences and making NATO membership a reality for Kyiv. We should work to lessen EU energy dependence on Russia, pre-emptively sanction Mr. Putin’s inner circle and their families and scale up support for Ukraine, Lithuania and Ms. Tsikhanouskaya’s free Belarus. Canada needs to show leadership by making Ukraine the new proving ground for our most deeply held values. The alternative is too awful to contemplate.

Indeed, analysts now believe Mr. Putin is poised to strike. The stakes are high. Invasions of Belgium and Poland triggered world wars only after earlier opportunities to prevent them were missed. We cannot afford to repeat those mistakes.

Only credible security guarantees, backed by NATO or similarly robust groups of allies, can deter wider conflicts in places such as Ukraine and Taiwan, just as sanctions against Pakistan could have prevented the return of the Taliban and other terrorists to power in Afghanistan.

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