Every so often Vladimir Putin draws back the shades and gives the West a portal into what he’s thinking. He did so Monday, unspooling a rambling hourlong monologue that served as revisionist red meat for the former Soviet KGB agent’s domestic audience, and a gauntlet on the floor for President Joe Biden and the nation he leads.
Putin railed against U.S. dominance in the post-Cold War world order, and demeaned Ukraine as a concoction of the Bolsheviks — an entity that has no legal justification to enjoy statehood. He fabricated a broad array of rationales for Russian aggression, including the wholly fantastical notion that “only in a matter of time” will Ukraine become a venue for Western nuclear weapons pointed at Moscow.
And then he delivered his fiery harangue’s capstone. Russia recognizes Ukraine’s separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent republics. That declaration was followed by Russian troops moving across the border and into those two war-torn lands in Ukraine’s east. Putin called them “peacekeeping troops,” a classic example of Orwellian doublespeak that would be comical if it weren’t for the pall of bloodshed that Russia’s latest move foretells.
The invasion feared for so long has begun. Even the White House said as much. “An invasion is an invasion and that is what is underway,” said Jon Finer, Biden’s principal deputy national security adviser. Waiting in the wings are more than 150,000 Russian troops that ring much of Ukraine. In Belarus to the country’s north, Russian troops are about a 140-mile drive from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital.
Biden cannot afford to tiptoe around Putin anymore. On Tuesday, he announced a measured but forceful response to the Russian leader’s actions, imposing sanctions on two major Russian banks as well as penalties that effectively cut off the Kremlin from Western financing. The U.S. and its allies will also sanction Russian elites and their families.
And in an important show of unified resolve against Putin, Germany agreed to suspend certification for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that is supposed to bring Russian natural gas to German households and businesses. Separately, the European Union imposed sanctions on 351 members of the Russian Parliament along with other people and entities who are “undermining or threatening Ukrainian territorial integrity.”
Biden is still keeping other, harsher sanctions — such as cutting off Russia from the global financial system and penalties on its energy sector — in his pocket in the event that the Kremlin escalates matters further. “If Russia proceeds, it’s Russia alone that bears the responsibility,” Biden said Tuesday.
Putin’s actions should come as no surprise. Neither should his game plan. Like Ukraine, the former Soviet republic of Georgia has allied itself with the West and expressed a desire to one day join NATO. In 2008, Putin sent Russian troops into two breakaway provinces in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and fought a brief war with severely undermanned and outmatched Georgian forces. The separatist territories were recognized by Moscow as independent states — a declaration denounced by much of the rest of the world.
One glaring difference distinguishes Georgia’s plight from Ukraine’s. Putin believes Ukraine shouldn’t exist as its own state. Lenin under Communist Russia artificially created it, Putin said in his speech Monday, and Ukraineonly functions as a nation now because of the Soviet collapse in 1991. “Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space,” Putin said.”These are our comrades, those dearest to us — not only colleagues, friends and people who once served together, but also relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties.”
Translation: Ukrainians have no right to regard themselves as Ukrainian.
Putin’s warmongering rhetoric sets the table for his eventual takeover of all of Ukraine. That potentially puts Europe on the cusp of its biggest war on the ground since World War II, and could mean the loss of thousands or even tens of thousands of lives. It also could mark the start of a Ukrainian insurgency against Russian occupation that would endure for years, and embroil Europe in a horrible new chapter of bloodshed and destruction.
In his speech, Putin also made it clear that he views NATO’s eastward expansion following the Soviet collapse in 1991 as an existential threat to Russia. That threat, or Putin’s perception of it, is a driving force behind his move into Ukraine. His desire to redraw the post-cold war map of Europe is crystal clear. .
Biden and America’s allies now must regard Eastern European NATO nations, particularly countries such as the Baltic states and Poland, as firmly in the crosshairs of the Kremlin. Putin has invited upon himself a western fortification of those vulnerable NATO members. That’s exactly what he has railed against, but that’s precisely what he’s going to get. One of the moves Biden made Tuesday was to announce the deployment of more Western troops to the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Ultimately, it will be the stranglehold of sanctions on the Russian economy, and on the Kremlin and Putin himself, that stands the best chance of getting the Russian leader to yield. Up until now, diplomacy hasn’t worked. It can still work, but only when the hurt imposed by sanctions arms the West with the leverage it needs to reach a settlement that doesn’t compromise Western principles or territory.
For those sanctions to work, the U.S. and its allies must remain unified — no matter how much those penalties strain Western economies. And, if Putin retaliates, there is a potential for great economic pain, even beyond Europe’s well-known dependence on Russian gas. Putin allies, for example, control much of the global supply of titanium, used by Boeing in its jets. And Russia and Ukraine control 90% of the world’s supply of neon, crucial to semiconductor companies.
All the more reason, then, for the rest of the world to be coordinated and determined. The goal is for those sanctions to hurt Russia hard. It’s time to treat Putin for what he is — a dangerous adversary, lamenting the fall of the USSR and a man fighting a new Cold War.