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opinion

Seventy years ago this week, the leaders of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union gathered in Crimea and hammered out a deal that would draw the dividing line between the Western and Eastern worlds.

The line was purely arbitrary, paying no heed to nations or languages or geographies or cultures, bisecting Berlin and redrawing most Central European countries. It was based not on any intrinsic meaning of "The West" or "The East" – for there is none – or on the desires or self-identifications of any citizens affected. It was based only on the consequences of brute military force and crude political compromise.

For 45 years, that line marked the edge of the Western world, and it became a very solid political, economic and, eventually, cultural reality. In 1990, it abruptly shifted with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, and then it shifted again with the European Union expansions of the early 2000s.

And now, on the anniversary of the Yalta conference, leaders gathered this week in Minsk to negotiate, once again, an East-West line. And once again, the result was about nothing but brute force and political power.

Nobody really knows what Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking in his war in eastern Ukraine. He does not appear to have a very clear idea himself. But we do know that his self-destructive campaign to stir up chaos on the fringes of Ukraine and Georgia and elsewhere is built on an argument, made with increasing force by Mr. Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, that there are people who are Westerners and there are people who are Easterners, defined by religion and language and ethnicity, and that the places they live are fixed entities, the West and the East.

This is hardly a new line of reasoning, but it is one that had disappeared for a long time, especially in Russia. Even during Mr. Putin's first two terms of office, it was a point of widespread agreement in Russia that the country was gradually moving closer to the institutions of Europe; commanders would tell me that a military union between Russia and the European Union was inevitable, for they both faced the same enemies.

That made sense. During those Cold War years, Europe built a very successful set of political, trade, legal, economic, educational and infrastructural institutions (and a less successful monetary one). People don't seek them out because of "Western" identity, but because they work.

Something has changed. Mr. Putin has recently taken to referring to his constituents not as "Rossisskii" – citizens of Russia – but as "Russkii" – ethnic Russians – and paying lip service to the far-out philosophy of Eurasianism, which holds that Slavs and their Orthodox Christian neighbours are a distinct and incompatible "civilization," along with the West and Islam. In Ukraine and other border countries, then, all the ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers are part of a fixed and immutable "East." (Never mind that in even the most "Eastern" parts of eastern Ukraine, no more than a third of people are Russian).

This sort of thinking has its own adherents in the West. When France and Germany rebuffed Turkey's overtures toward European Union membership a decade ago, their leaders made crude remarks about the West being defined by religion, ethnicity or historic origins. This has led to a backlash in Turkey, whose formerly pro-European leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now appears to be allying himself with Mr. Putin and the false logic of an anti-Western civilization.

We should have learned long ago that what we call the "West" is simply a set of institutions and affinities that are applicable to anyone who seeks them, regardless of religion or ethnicity or history. (Japan and South Korea have had little problem embracing them, for instance.) Poland and the Czech Republic shifted almost overnight from being "Eastern-minded" to "Western-minded" societies, simply because they joined the institutions of the West and their people wanted to be there. Mr. Putin's "Eurasian Union" has been a failure precisely because it is built on political-ethnic claims, not on functioning institutions. Ukraine has had two popular revolutions devoted to joining Europe's institutions and Ukrainians – even the majority of Russian-speaking Ukrainians – voted overwhelmingly last year for parties devoted to this cause.

This doesn't prevent any of them from feeling close to Russia, or any Russian from wanting to be part of our club. There are no "Westerners," there are no "Easterners," and the lines between us are artifices born of force and distant power. We seem destined to learn this the hard way.