Following weeks of tension along the border between Russia and Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetorical animus toward Ukrainian sovereignty has finally boiled over. The waiting game seems to be ending, that smoke is looking more and more like fire, and Russian troops are rolling into two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. The West can’t say we weren’t warned.
As Moscow massed tens of thousands of troops this winter, threatening a conflict that could embroil Ukraine’s NATO supporters — including the U.S. — Putin’s ego, nationalism and chauvinism has been exposed for all the world to see. This is, after all, a president who has previously claimed that Ukraine “is not a country” and that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people — a single whole.”
This is, after all, a president who has previously claimed that Ukraine “is not a country” and that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people — a single whole.”
Some of the more blinkered Western responses to the Kremlin’s aggression pre-invasion claimed the current crisis is about Ukraine, and nothing more. Characterized by conservatives like Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, these neo-isolationists claim that the U.S. should refrain from “provoking” Russia. Indeed in an interview published Tuesday, former President Donald Trump went so far as to call Putin a "genius."
These voices, however, missed the forests for the trees. Moscow’s demands were always about more than the security arrangements in Ukraine — instead aiming directly at the trans-Atlantic relationship and the post-Cold War order more broadly.
To recap, on Dec. 17, the Kremlin demanded that NATO deployments return to the borders that the alliance maintained a quarter century ago, a change that would end NATO’s presence in places like the Baltic countries — the three nations that escaped Moscow’s domination just a few decades ago. Moscow specifically called for the removal of NATO forces and weapons from alliance members like Romania and Bulgaria, the latter of which doesn’t even border Ukraine. The Kremlin has also issued threats regarding potential NATO expansion into countries like Sweden and Finland, which have seen a clear uptick in coordination with the alliance.
Meanwhile, Europe’s broader stability appeared suddenly rickety, and nominally frozen conflicts turned hot. In Bosnia, the current ethnic Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency (and a close ally of Moscow) threw his full weight behind the secession efforts of the country’s Serb-dominated region of Republika Srpska — one of the key reasons the U.S. slapped sanctions on him in January.
The decades-long frozen conflict in Moldova’s Transnistria region, a Russia-backed enclave that borders Ukraine, is also newly relevant as a potential hub of Russian military expansion. Moldova itself could even shatter, if Russia decides to add the region to any new territory it might seize from Ukraine. And whatever independence Belarus previously enjoyed has been effectively smothered by Russia’s embrace, with Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko turning his country into an effective vassal state for Moscow.
All the while, the Kremlin’s moves have created tension with key American partners in places like Germany, with Berlin and Washington at loggerheads about how to respond to Moscow’s aggression. Toss in new questions about how much countries like France or Hungary will support a unified opposition to Russia, and the trans-Atlantic alliance feels shakier than it’s been in decades.
These developments — from Moscow’s calls to reverse security arrangements not seen in decades to the surge in potential state fractures elsewhere — all point in one, clear direction. This crisis, and this conversation, is no longer about Ukraine, if it ever was.
As Putin would have it, this roiling calamity of his own making is about reordering the post-Cold War consensus in Europe — and perhaps evicting the U.S. from Europe entirely, unwinding the gains the West made in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin, as it were, appears ready to snatch victory from the shadow of post-Cold War defeat.
Nor should this be much of a surprise. For years, Putin has railed against the West’s supposed perfidy in expanding NATO following the Soviet collapse. Rather than watching independent countries make decisions about their own security arrangements, Putin and his inner circle envision one broad, U.S.-led conspiracy to supposedly encircle Moscow. Along the way, the Russian dictator has grown to see himself as not another middling, kleptocratic dictator, but as a figure of historic import, dedicated to restoring Russian greatness — and to unwinding the gains the West made when Russia was at its weakest following the Soviet collapse.
The Russian dictator has grown to see himself as not another middling, kleptocratic dictator, but as a figure of historic import.
Those who understand the Kremlin best have issued repeated warnings to this effect. Earlier in February, Fiona Hill — co-author of the best Putin biography to date, and a key former American official focused on Russia — affirmed Moscow’s broadening focus. “If Russia presses hard enough, Mr. Putin hopes he can strike a new security deal with NATO and Europe to avoid an open-ended conflict, and then it will be America’s turn to leave, taking its troops and missiles with it,” Hill wrote. Michael Kofman, one of the U.S.’s lead Russian military analysts, echoed as much, noting, “Ukraine, whose fate hangs in the balance, may be at the center of the crisis, but Moscow has a greater goal in mind: the revision of Europe’s security order.”
Putin, in other words, may be angling to return Russia to the dominant place in the European security order — the position he believes it deserves.
Thankfully, the Biden administration is standing firm behind formal allies and Ukrainian partners alike.
As Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said at the end of January, “This is about the type of world we want to live in. One in which the tanks and missiles of a powerful neighbor can decide a country’s fate or one in which citizens freely choose their own country’s future for themselves.”
Ukraine may be the locus of Moscow’s ire right now. But, by all appearances, Putin increasingly wants to rewrite Europe’s security order wholesale: to roll back the democratic, NATO-led gains of the past two decades, all to redound to Moscow’s benefit. All by launching what could become the greatest war Europe has seen in nearly a century, with all of the bloodshed and destruction attendant — none of which will be limited to Ukraine.