In my column on Feb. 1, I offered a prediction that Russian President Vladimir Putin would “not start a war during the Olympics, which take place in the People’s Republic of China, Feb. 4-20. He has too much respect for—and fear of—its president, Xi Jinping.” So Putin was right on schedule when, on Monday, he ordered Russian forces into eastern Ukraine.
What I didn’t know then, and we don’t know as I write this is, how far he will go. Is it his intention to slice off Donbas, a region where a low-intensity conflict—with Putin backing pro-Russian separatists—has been ongoing since 2014? Or will he order his troops to march on and conquer the entire country?
I’ll say more about that in a moment, but first I’m going to argue that this crisis could have been averted if American and European leaders, years ago, had designed and implemented a strategy to contain Putin—as they should have.
As noted in the earlier column, Putin regards himself as a latter-day czar whose mission is to restore and expand the shriveled empire that was bequeathed to him.
He has more money than he can ever spend (his Italianate palace on the Black Sea is valued at over a billion dollars), a much younger girlfriend (a former gymnast and model, if the tabloids are to be believed) and powers unconstrained by any laws. De facto, he has a license to kill, one he doesn’t hesitate to exercise.
What he lacks and wants is a legacy—confidence that he will be remembered as Vladimir the Great or maybe Vladimir the Terrible but, in either case, as a man of action, a shaper of history, a lion. He’s pushing 70. He has no time to waste.
He committed his first serious act of international aggression in 2008. Georgia—an independent nation that had been a Soviet possession and, before that, a protectorate of the Russian empire—was looking to Europe rather than to Moscow. Displeased, Putin went to war. He chipped off two provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They are now, for all intents and purposes, Russian territories.
He then waited to see what the United States, the European Union and “the international community” would do. They did nothing much.
The following year, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with a red button reading “reset” in English and (misspelled) in Russian.
Although I suspect that gave Putin a chuckle, then-Vice President Joe Biden later bragged that “once we pressed that reset button … we achieved a great deal in cooperation with Russia to advance our mutual interests.”
In a 2012 debate, Mitt Romney told then-President Barack Obama that Russia was America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Obama shot back: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”
In 2014, with the blessings of the International Olympic Committee, Putin was given the privilege of hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi, just north of the Abkhazian border. The Games were held in February. The following month, Putin orchestrated pro-Russian demonstrations in Crimea, Ukrainian territory on the Black Sea. He then sent in troops. On March 21, he formally annexed Crimea.
In April, pro-Russian militias began to storm buildings in Donbas. Over the years since, an estimated 14,000 Ukrainians have been killed in the simmering conflict.
Again, no serious consequences ensued. Within days of the Crimean takeover, the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, declared that the 2018 “World Cup has been given and voted to Russia and we are going forward with our work.” Nord Stream 2, a natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, moved ahead, too.
In December 2017, as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, I visited Ukraine and reported on Russia’s repressive policies, not least toward Crimean Tartars, a Turkic Muslim people indigenous to the peninsula. The “international community,” very much including the United Nations and its so-called Human Rights Council, turned a blind eye.
In 2019, I returned to Ukraine as an election observer for the International Republican Institute. I noted in a Washington Times column that there had been Russian meddling in the election but that “the impact was minimal,” with the pro-Russian party receiving less than 14% of the votes. I suspect Putin was both disappointed and angry.
I disagree with those who contend that Putin is motivated primarily by fear of NATO, a strictly defensive alliance that Ukrainians want to join because they feel threatened by Putin.
Ukraine is not a NATO member, and American and other allied troops will not deploy there. But the United States and the European Union do have a vital interest in preventing fledgling democracies from falling under despotic jackboots. It puzzles me that so many people, both on the right and the left, fail to grasp that.
After 2008, and certainly after 2014, Western leaders should have imposed painful penalties on Putin, and cast him as a pariah. Every effort should have been made to turn Ukraine into a “porcupine”—difficult for predators to swallow. In recent days, the United States and some allies (not Germany) have been working overtime to equip Ukrainians to better defend themselves.
If, over the days ahead, Ukrainians display courage, defiance and determination, can they stop Putin from stripping them of their independence, sovereignty and self-determination?
I’m reminded that, in the winter of 1939-40, Russia fought a grueling war against Finland. A Finnish soldier is reported to have quipped: “They are so many, and our country is so small, where will we find room to bury them all?”
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for the Washington Times.