NEW YORK (AP) — The crisis in Ukraine is barely fading away — a clash between two worldviews that could upend Europe. It carries echoes of the Cold War and revives an idea left by the Yalta conference of 1945: that the West should respect a Russian sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe.
Since coming to power in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin has worked steadily and systematically to reverse what he sees as the humiliating breakup of the Soviet Union 30 years ago.
While massing troops along the Ukrainian border and staging war games in Belarus, near the borders of NATO members Poland and Lithuania, Putin is demanding that Ukraine be permanently barred from exercising its sovereign right to join the Western alliance, and that other NATO actions, such as the stationing of troops in countries of the former Soviet bloc, be curtailed.
NATO said the demands were unacceptable and that joining the alliance was a right for any country and did not threaten Russia. Putin’s critics argue that what he really fears is not NATO, but the emergence of a democratic and prosperous Ukraine that could offer an alternative to Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule that the Russians might find attractive.
Russia’s current demands are based on Putin’s long sense of grievance and his rejection of Ukraine and Belarus as truly separate sovereign countries, rather than as part of a much more linguistic and Orthodox Russian homeland. oldest that should be united with, or at least friendly to, Moscow.
In a thousand-year-old treatise last summer titled “The Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin waved. He insisted that the separation of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus into separate states today is artificial, largely due to political mistakes during the Soviet period and, in the case of the Ukraine, motivated by a malicious “anti-Russian project” supported by Washington since 2014. .
His Russia-centric view of the region is a crucial test for US President Joe Biden, who is already grappling with crises on multiple national fronts – the coronavirus pandemic, resurgence of inflation, a divided nation in which a much of the electorate refuses to recognize his presidency and a Congress that has blocked many of his social and climate goals.
Biden has ruled out military intervention in support of Ukraine, and instead used intense diplomacy and rallied Western allies to back what he promises will be tough and painful sanctions on Russia if it dares invade Ukraine. But depending on how the situation develops, he admitted he might struggle to keep all allies on board.
The Russian leader has already invaded Ukraine once, with little reaction. Russia retook Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backed pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists fighting the Kiev government in the Donbas region, a quiet war that has killed 14,000 people, including more than 3,000 civilians.
Putin’s strategy has been to try to recreate the power and a defined sphere of influence that Russia lost with the fall of the Berlin Wall, at least in the area of the former Soviet Union. He has bristled at what he sees as Western encroachment on former Warsaw Pact countries – which once formed a pro-Soviet buffer between the USSR and NATO.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were allowed to join NATO in 1999, followed in 2004 by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.
Under Soviet rule after World War II, countries were eager to join the Western defensive alliance and the Western free market system to secure independence and prosperity after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
For similar reasons, Ukraine and Georgia also want to participate and have been recognized by NATO as aspiring members of the alliance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called on Western leaders to accept Ukraine’s membership application with greater urgency as a signal to Moscow that the West will defend Ukraine’s independence.
Russia argues that NATO expansion violates commitments made after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in exchange for Moscow’s acceptance of German reunification. US officials deny that such promises were made.
At the start of his presidency, Putin showed no outright opposition to NATO. He suggested in a 2000 BBC interview that Russia might even be interested in joining; years later, he said he raised the prospect with US President Bill Clinton before Clinton left office in 2001.
Now, however, Putin sees the alliance as a security threat to Russia.
But the new NATO countries take the opposite view. They see Russia, which has the largest army in the region and a vast nuclear arsenal, as the real threat, which is why they have rushed to join NATO – fearing that a strengthened Russia will one day try to reassert its dominance.
A disputed election in Belarus has led to months-long mass protests against longtime Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko. Alienated from his own people and unrecognized as a legitimate president in the West, Lukashenko has been pushed closer to Putin’s protective embrace.
Similarly, after the civil unrest in Kazakhstan just a few weeks ago, Russia sent troops to help the former president of the Soviet republic restore order as part of a peacekeeping mission. of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization alliance. The troops have since left the country.
Putin’s goal has been to reimpose ties with Russia’s former Soviet neighbors, while challenging and dividing the West. Rather than leading Russia in a more democratic direction, he now seems to reject the very idea of liberal democracy as an enduring model, seeing it instead as vanity that the West uses to pursue its own goals and humiliate its enemies. .
He came to power promising to restore Russia to a sense of greatness. He regained economic control from the oligarchs, crushed the rebels in Chechnya, gradually strangled the independent media and increased investment in the military. More recently, he banned the last few human rights organizations in Russia.
Beyond Russia’s borders, its intelligence service has overseen the assassinations of critics and meddled in foreign elections, including providing covert support for Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the pro-Brexit campaign in Britain and various right-wing European parties that oppose European integration. .
He told an interviewer in 2019 that “liberalism is obsolete”, implying that the dominant Western ideal of liberal democracy no longer has a place in the world. The idea that Ukrainians are independent and could freely choose their own alliances is for him a charade.
“All the subterfuges associated with the anti-Russian project are clear to us. And we will never allow our historic territories and our relatives living there to be used against Russia. And to those who will undertake such an attempt, I would like to say that thus they will destroy their own country,” he wrote in his essay last summer.
“I am convinced that the true sovereignty of Ukraine is only possible in partnership with Russia.”
The challenge for Biden, NATO and the European Union is whether their collective resolve and solidarity can protect Ukraine’s vision of itself as part of the West, and whether nationalist ambitions Putin’s Russian forces in the region will succeed or fail.
EDITOR’S NOTE: John Daniszewski, Associated Press vice president and editor, covered Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Russia during the breakup of the Soviet Union and the early years of Putin’s presidency.
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