If it was obvious before that Russia was pulling the strings in Ukraine to justify Russian intervention in a sovereign nation, it is now undeniable. The problem is that Russia may not care that its provocations are transparent. It will simply keep denying that it is doing what it is doing, and then keep on doing it.
It continued that patter on Monday, and here’s why: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has made plain his deep regrets about the dissolution of the Soviet empire, is looking backward as he tries to put back together a broken past. It won’t work.
Russia is already suffering from the beginnings of a recession precipitated by Putin’s adventurism in Crimea. Ukraine, despite a large segment of the population that advocates rejoining with Russia, is nevertheless an independent nation, and passionately so. By continuing to create phony excuses for an invasion, Putin could instigate a war that will not easily end, pushing Russia further still from normal relations with trading partners in the West.
Even more difficult for Putin, his movements in Ukraine have prompted NATO to pledge to substantially increase air, sea and ground presence in the nearby Baltic states, which were once part of the Soviet Union and are now NATO allies. U.S. ground troops may also be dispatched to Poland, as well as the Baltics. That brings Russia to the brink of military conflict with the West.
The question is whether Putin is now in too deep to get out, or whether he even cares about that. He wouldn’t be the first powerful world leader to invade another country, betting on the world’s unwillingness to intervene. Indeed, Putin’s manufactured crises in many ways mirror the moves by Nazi Germany in the years leading up to World War II.
That includes Putin’s evident efforts to stir up trouble in Ukraine, just as Germany did in Poland before its 1939 invasion of that country. A New York Times story published Monday makes a compelling case – complete with photographs – that Russian agents are working in Ukraine as agitators, presumably provoking violence that Putin will then feel compelled to settle, effectively taking over even more of that beleaguered country.
Indeed, on Monday, Russia’s foreign minister accused Kiev of violating the international accord reached last week to ease the (Russian) crisis in Ukraine. The story is playing out according to a script that Hitler would have admired.
Russia’s provocations are continuing in eastern Ukraine, and with thousands of Russian troop massed on the Ukraine border – more evidence of planning – it may be only matter of time before Putin completes – or continues – what appears to be a well-orchestrated charade.
There is little the United States can do to prevent Putin from proceeding as he has, other than to continue to raise the economic stakes for Russia. If Putin has made up his mind to annex that country, though, he may well already have calculated that those costs are worth bearing and will ease after a time, anyway.
Regardless of the poor options, the United States and European nations need to continue to increase pressure on Russia. Putin needs to understand – and very clearly – that he is rattling the world in ways that will cause him and his country severe problems, one of which is NATO troops in the Baltics, right on Russia’s western threshold.
This is a frightening moment in world affairs, but one from which the United States and the West dare not shrink.