It’s easy to understand the “what” of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans for Ukraine. We see their implementation on TV daily.
To comprehend the “why,” however, calls for a little geopolitical and historical background.
Know this: Putin is not just interested in the Crimea. He wants all of Ukraine. If he can’t swallow Ukraine whole now, he will bite off eastern Ukraine, an area where his agents have been openly agitating for Russia since the departure of President Viktor Yanukovich, Putin’s former satrap in Ukraine.
Putin mas a multiphase strategy. Phase one is to invade Crimea and observe how Europe and the U.S. respond. He invaded. Nothing happened. There were threats of dire consequences and other hollow declarations. The U.N. Security Council called an emergency meeting. Putin yawned. E.U. ministers held an emergency conclave, but with no contingency plans, they scratched their heads and wrung their hands in frustration.
Phase two for Putin is to send more provocateurs to agitate Russian-Ukrainians living in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s new government will continue to be defamed as “extremist,” “fascist,” and illegitimate.
Once eastern Ukraine descends into chaos, it will be time for phase three. Russian troops will be “asked” to “restore order and protect the Russians” living in eastern Ukraine. What will the U.S. and the West do? Nada. By now, people here will say “enough. We’re ‘Ukraine-weary.’ Moscow, after all, has always had interests in its ‘near abroad.’ Let’s be sensitive to that. Moral equivalence is our motto. Let diplomats sort it out. Peace in our time.”
Remember how the leftist elite mocked Mitt Romney after one of the presidential debates when he argued that the biggest threat to world peace today was Russia? He was accused of trying to revive the Cold War. After Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, Sarah Palin predicted that Putin might be emboldened to invade Ukraine if we did nothing. Journalists and foreign policy moguls chuckled derisively at her naiveté.
The next “near abroad” for Putin will be whatever is left of Ukraine. Phase four will be initiated, and by now, dear reader, you know the drill.
Why does Putin behave as he does? Along with many of his countrymen, he believes Ukraine is not really a nation. Ukraine is “Little Russia” and belongs within the borders of the Russian Federation. This imperial mindset has always been part of the Russian DNA. When it comes to understanding Russia and Putin, it is necessary to look into the history books.
Today’s Ukrainians are descendants of the Rus, a people that settled along the Dnieper River in the 9th century and established the city of Kyiv. By the 10th century Kyivan Rus was an empire which extended from the Baltic to the Black seas. For centuries they were called Rus.
Today’s Russians are descendants of the Muscovites who settled far to the northeast and established their city, Moscow, in 1147. Protecting its “near abroad” became the raison d’être for Moscow’s existence. For centuries, this excuse for expansionism worked. By 1900, the Russian Empire had exploded to 8.6 million square miles.
After the Yalta Agreements of 1945, Russia extended its hegemony to the eastern suburbs of Berlin. The people living within the Soviet orbit came to be called the “captive nations.”
When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the captive nations declared their independence. Putin, a former KGB colonel, was devastated. Speaking to the Russian people in 2005, Putin declared, “The collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the century … Tens of millions of our citizens found themselves outside of the Russian Federation.”
For liberty-seeking Ukrainians, the Soviet demise was a godsend. For Putin, it was a tragedy that demanded rectification.
Today, the Russian Federation encompasses 6.6 million square miles, an unacceptable size for the Russian president. No one knows exactly when Putin will remedy the Soviet collapse. All we know is that he is on his way and will not be swayed by threats of G-8 expulsions and finger-wagging from the west. He couldn’t care less. He is sitting on piles of oil and gas reserves so he is not worried.
Like it or not, we’re back in a cold war, so let’s stop pretending we’re not. Let’s resurrect Ronald Reagan’s successful anti-Communist playbook. A good beginning would be to restrict Russian access to western credit and technology, revoke the visas of more Russian oligarchs and freeze their assets, restore our missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, and convince the Saudis to begin pumping more oil so the price drops to less than $100 a barrel.
Tall order? Yes. Achievable? Yes. We need action, not words. Putin has developed a long-term strategy. We need one, too. Let’s pray we can find the courage and will do what is required.
• Myron B. Kuropas lives in DeKalb and is Ukranian ancestry. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and served in the White House as a special assistant to President Gerald R. Ford. He has written five books on Ukraine and Ukrainians, and is now a retired Northern Illinois University adjunct professor.