The limits of a whole and free Europe


PARIS — For the Lithuanian prime minister — and Lithuania knows something about life in the Moscow empire — President Vladimir V. Putin’s rambling rejection of the Ukrainian state, used to justify sending Russian troops into the eastern part of this state, “put Kafka and Orwell to shame.”

There were “no lows too low, no lies too blatant”, Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonyte said of Mr Putin’s threatening explanation on Tuesday of his decision to recognize two breakaway regions of Ukraine, Donetsk and Lugansk. But if the speech revived the double talk of the Soviet Union, more than 30 years after its demise, did it also revive the Soviet threat and the Cold War that accompanied it?

On many levels, Mr. Putin’s revanchist Russia’s challenge to the West is different. This Russia does not pretend to have a world ideology. The Cold War was based on closed systems; computer technology has put an end to that. No Soviet tank is ready to cross the Prussian plains and absorb all of Europe into a totalitarian empire. Nuclear Armageddon is not on the table.

Yet perhaps because of the way he set the stage for full-scale war, claiming that Russia has “every right to retaliate” against a fictional nation run by usurpers who would be responsible for the bloodshed, Mr Putin’s decision was felt as a breaking point that went beyond his annexation of Crimea in 2014. He raised the specter of the darkest days of the ‘Europe. He set a milestone, fixing the outer limit of whole and free Europe in 1989.

In its place, division and confrontation threatened a world marked by what Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called “President Putin’s blatant disrespect for international law and standards.” The White House called Russia’s move “the start of an invasion.”

China, walking a fine line between its support for Mr Putin and its support for the territorial integrity of sovereign nations, has refused to criticize Russia, though it says those standards must be met. Yet in a month when Russia and China have cemented a ‘boundless’ friendship, Mr Putin’s order to send troops to Ukraine suggested how Russian military might and Chinese ideological and economic heft could form a powerful anti-democratic front.

President Biden has often referred to an “inflection point” between liberal democracy and autocratic systems. For now, this point seems to be in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of a country whose name means border.

How far Mr. Putin is willing to go remains unclear. A senior French presidential official, who insisted on anonymity in accordance with government practice, called the Russian leader’s speech “rigid and, I would say, paranoid”.

This, he suggested, matched the man Mr Macron found at the end of a 20ft table in the Kremlin earlier this month, and later described to reporters on his plane as more rigid, isolated and ideologically inflexible than at their previous meeting in 2019.

Yet, as Polonius said in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Though madness, yet there is method.”

Mr. Putin, for all his wild imaginings of Ukraine as a “stepping stone forward” for a US preemptive strike against Russia, has relentlessly built his case against NATO expansion to the borders of the Russia and against Western democracies since the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. The approximately 190,000 Russian and separatist troops on the Ukrainian border and in its breakaway regions are just the latest expression of this obsession.

The open question is whether Mr. Putin has become weaker or stronger as a result of this move.

In some ways, he achieved the opposite of his intentions. US officials say he galvanized and united a NATO alliance that was looking for a purpose. It shifted Ukrainian public opinion decisively against Russia and towards NATO and Western membership. It has damaged an already vulnerable and undiversified economy, with Germany’s blocking of the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline on Tuesday being just the latest blow.

A poll this month in Ukraine by the organization Rating Group found support for NATO membership at a record high of 62%, down from 55% in December.

“He pitted Ukraine against Russia,” said Jacques Rupnik, a French political scientist specializing in central European countries. “It’s quite an achievement.”

At the same time, however, Mr. Putin has proven effective on several fronts. The humiliated Russia of the immediate post-Cold War era once again struts onto the world stage, winning the final game in Syria, working effectively through paramilitary surrogates in Africa, cementing a bond with China.

The Russian president has suspended Georgia and Ukraine in strategic limbo through the frozen conflicts he created there. Georgia’s membership in NATO no longer makes much noise. Ukraine’s membership seems infinitely remote, almost unimaginable, even to its closest Western allies.

In 2013, President Barack Obama decided not to bomb Syria after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crossed a US “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. Since then, Russia has acted aggressively in the apparent belief that no provocation outside of NATO countries will result in armed US retaliation.

Mr. Putin’s decision on Monday to recognize the two breakaway regions was the latest example of this investigation. Mr. Biden has made it clear that no American troops will be sent to die for Ukraine.

NATO’s eastward expansion after the fall of the Berlin Wall was designed to secure and safeguard the freedom of 100 million central Europeans who had escaped the Soviet empire. It worked. One thing Mr. Putin has not done is threaten Poles or Romanians with further Russian subjugation.

Its price, however, was the festering alienation of Russia, which felt betrayed by NATO on its border. This anger redoubled in 2008 when NATO leaders issued a declaration at the summit in Bucharest saying that Ukraine and Georgia, which were once part of the Soviet Union, “will become members of NATO”. They didn’t say how or when because they didn’t know – leaving the engagement to float in a sea of ​​treacherous vagueness.

“It was an absolutely disastrous decision,” Mr Rupnik said. “Either you say you will integrate Ukraine by a certain date assuming certain conditions are met, or you say that Ukraine’s place is not in NATO and we will design an alternative strategic framework for the neighborhood between NATO and Russia. It was the worst of both worlds.

How obvious is now. Russia’s demand that NATO pledge never to admit Ukraine has been met by the West’s insistence that NATO’s door remains open, even if no one is prepared to say how Ukraine would ever slip through that door.

The West has also complicated its position in other ways. As Marko Milanovic, professor of international law at the University of Nottingham, pointed out in the blog of the European Journal of International Law: “No matter how fantastic some Russian claims may be, the credibility of Western allies in response to Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty remains deeply undermined, in law and in fact, by their own prior misadventures, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq.”

In the end, Mr. Putin did what he did because he thinks he can get away with it in an unanchored world of growing great power rivalry, where American power is no longer determining factor and the Russian-Chinese alignment is strong. But pride is always a danger for a leader as isolated as Mr. Putin seems to be today.

The most difficult thing for a communist, it has been observed, is to predict the past. History must be modeled on the imperatives of the present. That’s what Mr. Putin, the former KGB agent, tried to do. The coming weeks will tell if Ukrainian anger, newfound NATO unity and American determination can stop its attempt to reverse the consequences of the Soviet collapse.


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