Decoding Putin’s threat to Ukraine
On Monday, publishing a nearly 7,000-word essay, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Ukrainian leaders that they would “destroy their country” by moving closer to the West.
As Putin put it, “All the tricks associated with the anti-Russia project are clear to us. And we will never allow our historical territories and people who are close to us living there to be used against Russia. And to those [Ukrainians] who make such an attempt, I want to say that in this way they will destroy their country.”
Although state media are making heavy play out of it, Putin’s fiery rhetoric does not exist in a Kremlin propaganda vacuum. Instead, it likely portends Russian military escalation against Ukraine. We can make that assessment based on two factors.
First, Putin is increasingly frustrated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s refusal to accept a Russian-favored ceasefire in contested areas of southeastern Ukraine. Zelensky has come under pressure from France and Germany to make greater concessions to Putin but has refused to do so. In turn, elements of the Russian military and its GRU and FSB intelligence services are waging a campaign of terrorism and assassination against Ukrainian forces and civilians. This offensive action includes daily sniper attacks and artillery strikes. Putin is trying to undermine Zelensky’s morale.
The Russian leader is also exerting military pressure of a more conventional kind, retaining a significant combined arms force within a short drive of Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders. Putin thus has the means to order rapid offensive action. Equally important, Putin knows that the European Union and the United States know he has this capacity. His military presence creates an opportunity for leverage by its very essence.
The U.S. has risked further fueling Putin’s confident strategic initiative. The Biden administration’s recent decision to cancel a U.S. naval deployment to the Black Sea signaled hesitation. It contrasted Britain’s recent warship deployment within 12 nautical miles of Russian-occupied Crimea.
Putin’s escalation is also signified by the obviously deliberate Russian nationalist mythos flowing throughout his essay. Supplementing similar statements, Putin declares that Ukraine cannot be a “partner” for diplomacy if it is “an instrument in someone’s hands to fight us.” With spurious references to Ukrainian history, Putin declares that Russia’s neighbor is actually a physical and ideological extension of Russia. “The word ‘Ukrainian,'” Putin says, “originally meant border service people who ensured the protection of external borders.” Putin observes that “that the true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible precisely in partnership with Russia.” Here, “precisely” can be translated as “only” in partnership with Russia.
The overriding message is clear. Putin will not allow Ukraine to operate as a truly independent nation separate and distinct from Moscow authority. To allow such a reality would be to betray not simply Russian security but its sacred identity: Ukraine has been and always will be an extension of the motherland.
The West would do well to pay attention to this rhetoric. It speaks to Putin’s rising tolerance for escalation and growing disinterest in compromise. If the West truly values Ukraine’s democratic sovereignty and the principle of European territorial inviolability, it will have to make sure Putin understands that.
If not, Ukraine and Western principles have a problem.
(c) The Washington Examiner