Putin and the Russian Duma, which now is largely a rubber stamp for his personal political ambitions, recognized the two Russian puppet-regimes that have been waging an insurgency against the central Ukrainian government for nearly ten years. Following this announcement, Putin launched the first open invasion into sovereign European territory in a non-pact state since before World War II.
It was initially suggested during Russia’s yearlong buildups and withdrawals along Ukrainian borders that Putin was concerned regarding future Ukraine membership in NATO, even though they had applied more than a decade earlier and had been rejected.
After Western governments rejected concessions, and noted the bizarre timing for raising such concerns, nearly 15 years after Ukraine’s application, Putin’s casus belli transformed into an act of false solidarism with the few so-called “ethnic Russians” who remain in the territory after it has been battered by a nearly decade-long proxy war.
The irony of the justification is that for years, Russia has launched a propaganda campaign in which the state suggests that there actually is no ethnic distinction, that Russians and Ukrainians are part of one in the same slavic ethnicity. By then suggesting that his “peacekeeping” mission is designed to protect ethnic Russians against ethnic Ukrainians, such rhetoric highlights the distinction and calls into question that propaganda effort. In the proxy war that has been waged between the ethnic groups, tens of thousands have been killed, and international observers are nearly unanimous in their assertions that the leadership, equipment and the largest contingent of the insurgent forces are Russian.
On Tuesday, in a quick change of track, Putin hosted a press conference in which he angrily alleged that a genocide was taking place in Eastern Ukraine, justifying an invasion for reasons altogether unrelated to his original fears regarding NATO expansion, which were the issues discussed with other Western leaders.
Such leaders were concerned about Putin demolishing the norms regarding holding the integrity of territorial sovereignty inviolable. This move threatens to throw NATO and the continent into disarray, renewing fears about Putin’s territorial ambitions in Eastern Europe.
The invasion of the East of Ukraine represents a move eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia with almost identical justification. Despite Putin’s claims of fear regarding NATO expansionism, this war is sure to encourage not only more rapid expansion of NATO, but requests for further deployments of weapons systems in those countries along Russia’s borders. This is especially true after revelations in recent years that Russia has potentially deployed nuclear-tipped Iskandar missiles in Kaliningrad threatening the core of Europe negating nuclear deterrence against the Kremlin.
If Eastern European states must now fear that without local weapons systems, manufactured justifications may lead to lost sovereignty, countries such as Finland and Sweden, the former which was actually USSR and already made permanent territorial concessions, will likely clamor to join.
No European state alone has the resources to defend its territory against Russia, which holds the largest nuclear arsenal in the world and now represents a hostile expansionist power, no longer tethered by international norms. Thus Russia’s neighbors may be compelled to join.
The question is, then, if European states, which hold veto power on NATO accession, would allow an expansion of the risk pool, particularly when many are vulnerable to shifts in Russian energy supplies. For its part, Germany has already announced that they would halt Nordstream 2, but further sanctions have not yet been announced.
Russia’s economy has been nearly completely stagnant for the last eight years since the invasion of Crimea. If sanctions sufficient to rankle Russia’s oligarchs are put in place, and effectively enforced, Putin may come to regret the decision, but without European unity, the West may find that appeasement leads to further aggression.