President Vladimir Putin is now 69 years old and he has been in office for almost 22 years, so he is starting to face his mortality: witness his two-year effort to isolate himself from Covid and holding meetings at comically long tables. He is frantic to resolve the problem of Ukraine before he dies.
The issue of Ukraine has bothered him since he became president around 2000. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2014 severely upset him because it ousted a famously pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovych.
Putin views Ukraine as an integral part of Old Russia — as elaborated in his essay last year on the subject. He desperately needs and wants to reunite the two nations — and thus establish himself as Russia’s greatest leader since Stalin and Peter the Great.
Since then, though, Ukraine and its people (except for the Russian-separatist sector in the east, or Donbas region) have, of course, publicly called for joining the European Union and NATO. This has left Putin even more furious and vengeful. But Putin is also overseeing an even broader campaign to re-establish the Soviet empire, whose dissolution he called the gravest crime of the 20th century.
Now, remember, during the Obama/Biden years, Putin already took small steps toward rebuilding the old Communist empire by seizing territories from Georgia and then grabbing Crimea and the Donbas. But Putin clearly also noticed that the United States under Obama slapped only minor sanctions on his country for his actions in Georgia and Ukraine and otherwise left him alone. So, in today’s world, he figured that he could invade Ukraine, similar to the previous actions, by small proportions in the Donbas, and that the new US president, Joe Biden — especially after his chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan — would react like Obama and soft-pedal the whole situation.
Clearly not, so far, as Biden has called Putin’s bluff in many ways. But the real question, though, is why didn’t Putin try to further retake Ukraine during the Trump years, when a pro-Putin Trump and anti-NATO Trump might have left him alone to do his misdeeds in that nation. But possibly Putin was getting along so well with Trump and making still-undisclosed secret deals with the US that he did not want to take any chances with upending that relationship.
There always was a solution to the problem of Ukraine in the waiting: namely, turning it into a neutral country like Finland or Austria. Both NATO and the US, in effect, recognized the nation’s neutrality by arguing that Ukraine’s membership in NATO was far, far away — probably never — but that did not satisfy Putin, who had always wanted full control of the country.
If Putin does indeed invade Ukraine beyond simply the Donbas, or by taking that region alone, it will be the most serious blunder of his checkered career and will further reunite NATO while perhaps even encourage Finland and Sweden to join the security body. Such a move will also cause world outrage, damage Russia’s economy and lead to body bags flowing back to Moscow, trigger guerrilla warfare and make Putin look like such a reckless outlaw and out of control tyrant that he could get overthrown by his own military just as Khrushchev was deposed over the disastrous Cuban missile crisis.
There is no escaping from such a showdown, short of a last-minute diplomatic solution. Putin’s further invasion could shake Europe to its roots and force the US to impose drastic sanctions on Russia, reconfiguring global security for decades to come. Can the world take such extreme upheaval?
This analysis represents the views of the writer.
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Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.
Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.