This might be a signal that Vladimir Putin intends to take all of Ukraine by force. Before moving on to reconstitute the Soviet empire.
In a call with Mustafa Dzhemilev, the former head of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tarter people, Putin reportedly dismissed his concern that a referendum scheduled to be held this weekend in Crimea, which would decide whether the territory should be annexed to Russia, would violate the terms of a 1994 treaty with Western nations guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty.
According to Dzhemilev, Putin also said that it was debatable as to whether Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, acquired in 1991, was even legal.
The world could be moving into extremely dangerous times. Suppose that the claim above is true and Putin said what is reported. Prior to its dissolution in 1991, the USSR included a number of countries which have since become independent.
Those include Ukraine and the Baltic States — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — among others. Ukraine suffered massively under Soviet rule; Stalin intentionally starved millions of them during the 1932-33 famine. Ethnic Ukrainians mostly want nothing to do with Russia now. After the USSR’s fall, the Baltics joined NATO to enjoy protection from post-Soviet Russia as quickly as they could, and they are NATO members now. NATO has also included several countries that were forced into the Warsaw Pact, including Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. NATO’s expansion has moved the West’s borders right up through what was the old Soviet Union’s borderlands up to Russia itself, a fact that Putin openly bristles at. Russian foreign policy over the last 300-odd years, Soviet era and otherwise, can be boiled down to obtaining warm-water ports and keeping a buffer between itself and Europe’s central, more powerful states and the United Kingdom. Ukraine, the Baltics and the Warsaw Pact satellite states in eastern Europe were that buffer during the Soviet era. The Soviets effectively moved Russia’s frontier all the way to Berlin; the post-Soviet era has erased that buffer and moved the border back to Russia’s own frontier. NATO is a defensive alliance, but KGB man Putin has never seen it that way.
Putin was not in power when the Soviet Union fell apart, and is not a signatory to the documents by which it was dissolved and the Commonwealth of Independent States was formed. Mikhail Gorbachev was in power as the USSR’s general secretary, and Boris Yeltsin took power as president of Russia after the USSR’s death. Putin may therefore see that entire sequence of events as illegal, mainly because he wasn’t there, and something to be overturned.
Putin has already said that the USSR’s fall was a geopolitical catastrophe. He has already taken strides to create the Moscow-centric Eurasian Union, which comes into full in 2015. If Putin truly believes that the dissolution of the USSR itself was illegal, he is implying that all of Ukraine and the Baltics, as well as several other currently independent countries, belong to Russia and/or a reconstituted Soviet Union, and that he would be within his rights to invade and conquer them. Every independent nation that borders Russia and/or was once incorporated in the Soviet Union should greet this with great alarm.
Ukraine is not a NATO member, and the West would not be directly obligated to defend it should Russia move to seize all of it. But the West is not completely off the hook: The 1994 Budapest Memo calls for respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and Putin has already violated it by seizing Crimea. The US and UK signed that document to reassure Ukraine. What should our allies make of Obama’s ineffective response and the UK’s obvious cravenness?
Let’s look at things from Putin’s point of view. The United States currently has an inexperienced president, is war-weary and debt-ridden and often fails to see eye to eye with its allies in Europe and Asia. Its Congress is currently bitterly divided, but that may change in November — but that Congress will be unified under the Republicans, so the American government will remain divided. Its military has been slashed and faces more force reductions. Its economy is stagnant. Its heavy industry has been whittled away for decades as jobs in that sector have been shipped overseas. Europe has not taken military matters seriously for decades, preferring to live under America’s protection. The UK is far from the global power it once was, and neither is Germany. On the Asian wing, South Korea remains preoccupied by North Korea and while Japan possesses one of the best funded self-defense forces in the world, its military lacks reach. For Vladimir Putin, who has already gotten the best of Barack Obama and seen to it that Obama’s red lines fade quickly, there may be no better time than this one to undo the catastrophe of the Soviet Union’s fall, if that’s what he is inclined to do.