Russian President Vladimir Putin describes the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th Century.
The hammer and sickle was lowered for the last time on the night of Dec. 25, 1991, spinning the 15 Soviet republics overnight into independent countries.
What Putin laments about the Soviet collapse is the loss of Russian dominance over the vast Communist-ruled empire, a “sphere of influence” already shrunk by then after pro-democracy revolutions in Eastern Europe and independence proclamations within the USSR.
The 30th anniversary of the Soviet demise on Saturday has, at least in part, inspired Putin’s provocative buildup of troops and tanks on Ukraine’s border as he threatens once again to retake parts of Russia’s lost empire by armed force.
In a televised address to his top military commanders on Tuesday, Putin accused the United States of turning Ukraine against Russia and warned he would be “fully entitled” to respond with military action.
“If our Western counterparts continue a clearly aggressive line, we will undertake proportionate military-technical countermeasures and will respond firmly to unfriendly steps,” the Kremlin leader declared in the televised address. “I’d like to stress that we are fully entitled to do that.”
Putin has made a scarecrow of NATO throughout his 21 years as Russian leader, casting the 30-nation Western military bloc as an intruder into former Soviet republics and Communist-era allied states in Eastern Europe. But what has often been dismissed by Western analysts as rhetoric has taken on a more menacing tone amid the massing of full-scale invasion capability on Ukraine’s border and an anniversary that for the Kremlin is a humiliating reminder of its lost superpower status.
“What the United States is doing in Ukraine is at our doorstep,” Putin warned. “And they should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Under [US] protection, they are arming and urging on extremists from a neighboring country at Russia.”
As with Russian military incursions into Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine’s Crimea region and two eastern provinces in 2014, Putin’s undeclared threat to invade Ukraine is based on an invented pretext — that Russia is the victim of military hostility rather than its perpetrator. Analysis by Kremlinologists and Western intelligence agencies underestimated Putin’s intentions in those incursions until what seemed against Russia’s own interests had become a fait accompli.
A U.S. intelligence report last month warned Russia appeared to be positioning up to 175,000 troops along a vast stretch of Ukraine’s borders for a possible invasion as soon as January, the Washington Post reported.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met on the sidelines of a European security conference in Stockholm on Dec. 2 and traded warnings about fueling tensions between Russia and its Eastern European neighbors.
Blinken advised that “the best way to avert crisis is through diplomacy,” and vowed punishing economic sanctions would be imposed if Russia resorts to military means instead.
Lavrov, after asserting Russia does not seek conflict, accused NATO of provoking instability in the region.
“The architecture of strategic stability is rapidly being destroyed. NATO refuses to constructively examine our proposals to de-escalate tensions and avoid dangerous incidents,” Lavrov said in a speech the same day as his meeting with Blinken at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe summit. “On the contrary, the alliance’s military infrastructure is drawing closer to Russia’s borders. The nightmare scenario of military confrontation is returning.”
Escalating deployment of war-fighting capabilities instigated a virtual summit between President Joe Biden and Putin on Dec. 7 at which the Russian leader was warned of “severe consequences” if he were to invade Ukraine.
The troop-buildup continued, spurring the Group of Seven wealthy nations to condemn Russia’s menacing actions and “aggressive rhetoric towards Ukraine.”
Putin reacted to that diplomatic interjection by conferring with a fellow and more powerful autocrat, China’s Communist President Xi Jinping. The two met Dec. 15 in a virtual summit at which they praised their relations as “the best ever” and shared their contempt for what they see as dangerous foreign interference in their domestic political affairs.
The video conference carried by both nations’ state-controlled media was a show of solidarity in their campaigns to retain or regain control over territory they see as rightful parts of their nations. Putin’s ambitions to reunite Ukraine with Russia holds geopolitical similarities with Xi’s vow to see reunion of the Chinese mainland with Taiwan. China considers Taiwan a rebellious province that must be brought under Beijing rule by whatever means necessary. Taiwan, self-governing since defeated nationalist forces fled the mainland in 1949, rejects rule by Beijing’s Communist regime.
“We firmly support each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests and safeguarding the dignity of each country,” Xi told Putin, according to Chinese state news media.
“A new model of cooperation has been formed between our countries — one based on foundations like noninterference in domestic affairs and respect for each other’s interests,” Putin told Xi.
The meeting with Xi appeared to embolden Putin in his standoff with the West. On Friday, Putin issued sweeping demands that NATO halt its eastward expansion, pledge to deny membership to Ukraine and remove military operations from countries that were not NATO members before 1997. Of NATO’s 30 member states, 14 have been admitted since 1997, including the three former Soviet Baltic republics, former members of the Warsaw Pact, and Balkan states the Kremlin considers part of its wider alliance of Slavic peoples.
U.S. and NATO officials dismiss Putin’s demands as nonstarters, but Biden offered to negotiate with Putin on moves each side might make to reduce tensions. The hesitancy to outright reject Putin’s demands for a NATO retreat is likely out of concern the Kremlin might respond with the threatened military option.
“Russia has now put on the table its concerns with American and NATO activities,” White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan told the Council on Foreign Relations on Friday. “We can make progress in some areas, and in other areas, we’re just going to have to disagree.”
Ukraine’s appeal for military aid from the U.S. and NATO provided Putin with the narrative that Russia is under threat of aggression from Ukraine and what the Kremlin leader portrays as its Western puppet masters. In fact, NATO has long conditioned Ukrainian membership in the alliance on benchmarks it will need years, if not decades to meet. Kyiv must eradicate corruption in government and industry and achieve economic stability that would allow it to contribute to alliance strength, not just draw from it.
Putin’s February 2014 invasion of Crimea followed Ukraine’s rebellion against then-President Viktor Yanukovich, who sparked the uprising with a unilateral decision, under pressure from Putin, to scrap a treaty with the European Union for a path to membership for Ukraine. As with Ukraine’s quest to join NATO, domestic reforms required to join the EU were expected to take 20 years.
Kremlin analysts express conviction that Putin has nothing to gain by waging war against Ukraine, where Russian proxy separatists and Ukrainian government troops have been frozen along the same front line since 2015.
In an article for Foreign Affairs released ahead of publication next month, “Why the Stalemate in Eastern Ukraine Will Likely Hold,” the author argues that the status quo serves both Russia and Ukraine. Full-scale war would inflict vastly greater casualties beyond the 14,000 lives lost so far in the stalled battle for control of two battered eastern provinces, writes Katharine Quinn-Judge, Ukraine analyst for the International Crisis Group.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul reacted to Putin’s demands for a rollback of NATO from his claimed sphere of influence with proposals for moves Russia could make if it is serious about wanting to reduce tensions. He proposed Russia offer de-escalating moves of their own: Withdrawing Russian troops from Moldova, exiting the occupied regions of Georgia, returning Crimea to Ukraine and ending support to separatist rebels in the eastern provinces.
“Rarely in history have unilateral ultimatums published in the name of enhancing ‘security’ produced more security. Often, they have been used as pretexts for annexation and war,” McFaul wrote in an opinion piece published Tuesday in the Washington Post. He likens Putin’s suggestion that the U.S. and Russia negotiate Ukraine’s fate without Ukrainians at the table to the 1945 Yalta Conference that ceded Eastern European democracies to Stalin’s Soviet empire.
“NATO’s relationship with Ukraine is going to be decided by the 30 NATO allies and Ukraine, no one else,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week after Putin set alliance rollback as the price for peace.
Earlier this month, analyst Andrei Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Center think tank warned that Russian views on military adventures have changed since the triumphal reaction to annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“Militarization stopped being a way to mobilize Russians in support of the government in 2018. Russians—in particular young people—don’t want war,” he wrote in answer to the question of whether Russia will attack Ukraine.
Polling in Russia shows most Russians blame the U.S. and NATO for the deteriorated relationship between their country and Ukraine. But only 17% of Russians said they wanted to see Russia and Ukraine reunited, and even fewer are ready to take up arms for such a fight.
Russia is still under punishing international sanctions for the seizure of Crimea and human rights abuses at home and abroad. Germany is under pressure to further delay opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would double the flow of natural gas from Russia to a North Sea German port — and bypass Ukraine’s delivery network. Russia’s economy continues to suffer and the Covid epidemic has contributed to a 20-percentage-point fall in Putin’s approval ratings.
Why would the Kremlin leader intensify those problems with an attack on a weaker neighbor that poses no real risk to Russian security?
The answer lies in the mind of Vladimir Putin, who faced — and ignored — similar warnings ahead of past aggression against the former Soviet subjects he wants returned to his domain.