Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday recognized separatist republics in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, ordered Russian troops there for “peacekeeping” duty and brought Russia to the precipice of all-out war. Is it time to panic?
Let’s first unpack the day’s events: Putin built his working day around a clever a bit of political theater, convening a publicly televised meeting of his security council at the Kremlin. Sitting at an almost-comical distance from his top security advisers in a garish, colonnaded hall, Putin listened to arguments in favor of recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics.
Putin’s lieutenants were eager to show their zeal. Sergei Naryshkin, Director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, said he supports recognizing the independence of the breakaway republics, but added that he supported their inclusion in the Russian Federation.
“We aren’t discussing this today,” Putin said, with a laugh.
State television abruptly ended the spectacle, without Putin weighing in on the matter of recognition.
The Kremlin then tipped Putin’s hand: He would be announcing his decision to recognize the two separatist statelets in eastern Ukraine.
Drama resumed a short while later when Putin reappeared on television with a televised address.
But in that televised address, he buried the lead. Rather than getting to the heart of the matter, Putin prefaced this major announcement with a lumbering, nearly hour-long speech that traced the arc of 20th century Soviet history, starting with the October Revolution of 1917 and continuing through the emergence of a sovereign and independent Ukraine from the ashes of the USSR.
Putin’s passion for history is no secret: Last summer, the Kremlin lit a slow-burning fuse under Ukraine when he published a more than 5,000-word essay that, in essence, cast doubt on the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood.
But the Kremlin leader’s history obsession has now brought him into a new and more heightened phase of open conflict with the West – and that confrontation threatens to flare into a cataclysmic new war.
Professional historians will have their hands full for a long time deconstructing and debunking some of Putin’s historical generalizations. But if you’ll pardon the distillation, it runs like this: Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks created the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic; Joseph Stalin expanded it after World War II by annexing territory that previously belonged to Poland, Romania and Hungary; and then Nikita Khrushchev (who led the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War), for some unknown reason, took away the Crimean Peninsula from Russia and gifted it to Ukraine. Et voila! Modern Ukraine is merely a fiction.
It’s easy enough to disagree, and thousands of Ukrainians have fought and died for a country that Putin dismisses as some kind of administrative and territorial concoction of Soviet administrators. So what does that have to do with Donbas? Putin’s tendentious historical lecture on Monday seemed to barely touch on the current crisis. But the ghosts of history, it seems, still haunt the Russian president.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 created a handful of “frozen conflicts” such as Transnistria, a separatist state in Moldova, and the breakaway statelets of South Ossetia and Abkhazia inside the territory of Georgia. In those conflicts, Russia has inserted itself as a “peacekeeping force” – at least on paper. In practice, Russia has to varying degrees propped up client states that undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nations such as Moldova and Georgia.
The same playbook is being used in Donbas. Until now, before recognizing the separatists, Russia maintained the fiction that separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics were simply locals who had taken up arms to defend themselves against the Kyiv government, despite overwhelming evidence that the rebels were trained, equipped and led by Russia.
Now that fiction falls away. Russia is, in essence, openly taking a side in what Putin previously – and carefully – referred to as the “intra-Ukrainian conflict.” Russia has openly taken a side, and what that means for European security is anyone’s guess.