After an alarmingly belligerent speech this evening where Russian Vladimir Putin declared that the "breakaway republics" in Ukraine would be given Russian military support (and throwing years of diplomacy out of the window, he does that a lot) he apparently ordered 150,000 or so Russian troops on the border with Ukraine to come on in and say hi.
The Kremlin has ordered Russia’s defense ministry to deploy troops in two Russia-backed separatist territories that have loomed large in the conflict over Ukraine.
Moscow announced that it would carry out “peacekeeping functions” in decrees published late Monday, shortly after President Vladimir V. Putin told his nation that he had decided to recognize Russia-backed separatists in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
It was not immediately certain whether the Russian troops would remain only on the territory controlled by the separatist republics, or whether they would seek to capture the rest of the two Ukrainian regions whose territory they claim.
And so it was unclear if a long-feared Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine had begun. The separatists might have invited Russian forces in, but neither Ukraine nor the rest of the world views the so-called republics as anything but Ukrainian territory.
While Mr. Putin’s ultimate plans remain a mystery, a full invasion would constitute the largest military action in Europe since World War II.
By seeking to redraw the post-Cold War boundaries of Europe and force Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit, Mr. Putin is attempting nothing less than to upend the security structure that has helped maintain an uneasy peace on the continent for the past three decades.
Now edging toward the twilight of his political career, Mr. Putin, 69, is determined to burnish his legacy and to correct what he has long viewed as one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century: the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Asserting Moscow’s power over Ukraine, a country of 44 million people that was previously part of the bloc and shares a 1,200-mile border with Russia, is part of his aim of restoring what he views as Russia’s rightful place among the world’s great powers, the United States and China.
Mr. Putin has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, and insists that Moscow’s military buildup is a reaction to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.
Essentially, he appears intent on winding back the clock 30 years, to just before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The US is responding with sanctions on the breakaway groups, but not on Russia. Yet. Still, this is going to get out of hand, very quickly, if things go wrong here, and yeah, we've got Russian troops in Ukraine.
I assume we're going to have a UN Security Council emergency meeting within days, but by then, well. Smart observers will notice that this is a repeat of Putin's 2008 invasion of Georgia.
Putin may hope to provoke an armed response from Ukraine that would provide a pretext for a larger assault. But the initial “peacekeeping” move into Donetsk and Luhansk was limited, and a senior Biden administration official was careful to avoid describing it as an invasion, noting that Russian forces have been operating covertly in the two enclaves for nearly eight years.
The Biden administration seemed to be calibrating its response, reacting less sharply to Putin’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk than did some other world leaders. The administration clearly wants to leave the door open for Moscow to stop short of an attack on Ukraine that is opposed not only by a unified NATO alliance but — perhaps more sobering for the Russian leader — by China as well.
Putin is “the ultimate political performance artist,” as Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy put it in a new biography. Monday’s carefully staged events evoked both the majesty of imperial Russia and the pettiness and paranoia of its modern-day leader.
The day’s events began with a televised command performance of Putin’s security council in the ornate Kremlin chamber. Putin asked each of his ministers for their recommendation about recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk. Many responses were dutifully on script, but there were several surprises.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia’s demands for security guarantees were “not an ultimatum,” and he seemed ready to meet Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken for more talks. Lavrov also conceded NATO’s unity, advising Putin that at this past weekend’s Munich Security Conference, “every Western representative declared their absolute commitment to a unified approach,” which “confirmed that we need to negotiate with Washington.”
Some of Putin’s other ministers fed his passion to subdue Kyiv. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Ukraine could obtain nuclear weapons and pose a greater threat than Iran or North Korea. And Nikolai Patrushev, head of the security council, said Western nations “are hiding their true goal — to destroy the Russian federation,” a favorite Putin theme.
But the big surprise came when Putin quizzed Sergei Naryshkin, head of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. Naryshkin advised that threatening to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk would be useful leverage for implementing the 2015 Minsk agreements to settle the conflict in the eastern region. Russia has claimed to support Minsk, but Monday’s recognition of the two breakaway enclaves as independent will probably derail any chance for the agreement. In response to Naryshkin’s answers, Putin got antsy.
What followed was a rare Kremlin moment of quasi-dissent. “Speak clearly, do you support recognition?” demanded Putin. “I will,” answered his spy chief. “You will, or you do?” demanded Putin. When Naryshkin waffled and said he would support “bringing them into Russia,” Putin shot back, “That’s not what we are discussing. Do you support recognizing independence?” To which the vexed spymaster answered, “yes.”
The SVR chief may have been rattled by the astonishing ability of U.S. intelligence to read (and publicize) Russian intelligence plans about Ukraine. Whatever the reason, Max Seddon, Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times who translated the exchange in Twitter posts, noted that the session was “like the finale of the Sopranos.”
One thing's for sure, like the seminal HBO drama, we'll be talking about this day for quite some time to come, if not years later, and what it all ultimately meant.