It is still unclear how far Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to go in Ukraine, but in a televised address from the Kremlin on Monday, he gave a one-hour lecture on the history – his version – of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet Union. It might as well have been titled, “Russia is Real, Ukraine is a Fiction.”
Mr. Putin has been cagey about his plans in Ukraine. He issues ultimatums that cannot be met, then engages in talks. He masses troops at the border, then says he will never invade.
On Tuesday he continued the game, authorizing the sending of troops into two enclaves in Ukraine already effectively occupied by Russian forces, but saying that he had yet to send them in. It is unclear what the man who took three bites out of Ukraine in 2014, and has waged a low-intensity war inside the Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk ever since, intends to do next.
But in Monday’s speech, he made it clear how he would remake the region if he faced as little opposition beyond Russia as within. He would absorb Ukraine, all of it, and likely the other former states of the Soviet Union, too.
His argued, first of all, that while there may be a geographical place called “Ukraine,” it’s just one more part of Russia. “Since time immemorial,” said Mr. Putin, “the people living in the southwest of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians.”
And since the borders of the administrative creation called “Ukraine” were forcibly altered by Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and the Yalta Agreement, Ukraine’s borders are arbitrary and fictional, and open to being (again) changed by force.
In the 1930s and 40s, Ukraine was subjected to a period of oppression and death unprecedented in human history at the hands of history’s two most murderous regimes. That the victorious of those two totalitarian regimes expanded the borders of the Soviet Union by forcibly remodelling the boundaries of Eastern Europe was presented by Mr. Putin as an argument that Ukraine does not exist – “that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.”
Mr. Putin spent the better part of an hour delving into his version of the history of the Soviet Union. It offers an insight into his world view.
Most people in the West would tell the story of Ukraine in the years after the collapse of the old Russian Empire as a history of a nation briefly gaining independence, which was then crushed by the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. When Ukraine became independent in 1991, it was reclaiming what was lost seven decades earlier.
Mr. Putin stands that story on its head. In his telling, Ukraine only exists because, when Lenin was in a position of weakness after seizing power, he gave Ukraine and the other republics a notional semi-autonomous status within the new USSR.
But by the 1920s, Stalin was strong enough to break all promises and remove from the republics any semblance of independence. The only thing Stalin got wrong, in Mr. Putin’s version, is that in the course of redrawing Ukraine’s borders, and erasing its autonomy and identity, Stalin simply forgot to actually erase it and the other republics from the map.
Mr. Putin’s view as to the malleability of his neighbours’ borders could put other parts of what was once Russia’s empire – Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and even Finland – in his sights. It challenges the entire postwar order, and the basis of the United Nations itself.
U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday said Mr. Putin is “setting up a rationale to go much further.” True. He also described it as “the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.” Unfortunately, that it also probably true.
That’s why the Americans, the Europeans and Canada have to push back with sanctions. These should be ramped up to the degree Mr. Putin moves forward. We should also have no qualms about providing further material aid, including military equipment, to Ukraine.
All of the above is essential because NATO has no plans to take the most drastic step: direct military involvement. Russian troops crossing the border into Ukraine will spark more Western sanctions, but Mr. Biden on Monday once again underlined that the border whose crossing would trigger World War III is the one between Russia and NATO, not the one between Ukraine and Russia.
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