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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Governor of the Kamchatka Territory at the Kremlin in Moscow on Jan. 24, 2022.MIKHAIL METZEL/AFP/Getty Images

Lubomyr Luciuk is a professor of political geography at the Royal Military College of Canada.

I have no idea what Vladimir Putin intends to do this week, next month, or next year – nor do the other pundits I have read.

Some have promoted the notion that Russia has a “sphere of influence” over Ukraine just because Ukraine was once held captive within the Soviet imperium. This is a rather tired excuse for settler-colonialism, a quite unacceptable formula for how international affairs should be managed in the 21st century.

In the three decades since the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991, a post-Soviet generation has grown up. I’ve met many of these young people in Ukraine. I’ve even encountered a few in Kingston, where for many years Ukrainian officers annually participated in advanced military training. The last two students who came here, just before the pandemic disrupted the program, were born after 1991, veterans of combat against the Russian invaders in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Neither man wanted his country to have anything to do with the anti-democratic regime of the Russian President and his KGB confederates, whom they correctly described as being hostile to the very idea of a free Ukraine. These warriors are now on the front lines. I know they will fight hard, not just because they know how, but more importantly, because they know why.

Then there are those who claim that NATO has gone “marching” eastward, “incorporating” former Soviet republics and the Warsaw Pact states and posing some kind of existential threat to Russia. Well, the reality is that Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and other countries willingly reoriented themselves toward Europe and joined NATO as quickly as they could, doing whatever necessary to get away from Moscow. They saved themselves.

NATO sends forces to eastern Europe to bolster Ukraine and allies in standoff with Russia’s Putin

Some have suggested that Mr. Putin’s real purpose, whether his troops stage a limited incursion or launch a full-scale attack, is to get Ukraine to accept neutrality, as Austria or Finland were forced to do after the Second World War. But that’s not it. What Mr. Putin really craves is a neutered Ukraine. Sadly, I think he may succeed – not through the force of Russian arms, but because of what the West won’t do.

Indeed, this is the reality: Despite decades of blather that’s still being repeated, Ukraine hasn’t been welcomed into NATO. All the assurances Kyiv was given about how Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence would be respected in exchange for the surrender of the country’s nuclear arsenal – promises that include the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances – were nothing but hollow. A generation of Ukrainians was duped, and they should have known better.

In 1991, I wrote an op-ed for this newspaper cautioning Kyiv against trusting others with Ukraine’s national security. For that, I was admonished as a roguish provocateur; surely, the free world would not break its solemn promises? I take no pleasure in saying “I told you so,” but I must. Today, when Ukraine needs reliable allies, none are to be found. Ukraine stands alone, betrayed.

In 2014, Russian soldiers occupied Crimea, which was illegally annexed by the Russian Federation soon thereafter. Russia has waged war against Ukraine ever since. Meanwhile, the West has not helped much, its much-touted economic sanctions incomplete and largely ineffectual. No matter what Russia does next, it’s obvious the West has been cowed – and Mr. Putin knows it. So today’s Ukrainians have to swallow the bitter truth: that their dreams of Ukraine returning to its rightful place in Europe have been undermined by the West. Or to put it another way: Mr. Putin has already won this war, without having to despoil even another metre of Ukrainian land.

Where the world goes after this is something we should all fear.

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