Putin revives Soviet-sized ambitions in Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a recording of his annual televised New Year's message in the Kremlin. His address was broadcast hours after a phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden, which focused on Moscow's demand for Western security guarantees amid a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine.
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Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed at Christmastime. Vladimir Putin has called that moment in 1991 the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

And now, after three decades of what he feels has been humiliation by the West, Russian President Putin is trying to reverse some of the consequences of the dissolution of the USSR.

Why We Wrote This

Vladimir Putin cannot restore the Soviet Union, but he is seeking to reestablish Moscow’s European sphere of influence. Can Western powers ensure their security arrangements?

At home, he has been rehabilitating the image of Josef Stalin for the dictator’s decisive role in winning World War II. Abroad, he is challenging the European security arrangements that have grown up since 1991, seeking to roll back NATO’s growth and to reestablish a formal “sphere of influence” for Moscow. That is what seems to be behind the deployment of an estimated 100,000 Russian troops at the Ukrainian border, threatening a possible invasion.

Western diplomats have dismissed Mr. Putin’s initial list of negotiating demands as a non-starter. But the Russian leader has succeeded in grabbing Western attention, and in provoking a sense of urgency about dealing with the Kremlin unseen since the Cold War. The question now is how much more it will take to convince him to call off his military escalation.

It’s the Ghost of Christmas Past: the echo of another yuletide, exactly thirty years ago, which saw the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Yet as the new year begins, that memory is exerting an ever-stronger influence on the behavior of the president of post-Soviet Russia, Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin wishes the Soviet Union had never ended. He has said so openly, describing that Christmas in 1991 as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

Why We Wrote This

Vladimir Putin cannot restore the Soviet Union, but he is seeking to reestablish Moscow’s European sphere of influence. Can Western powers ensure their security arrangements?

He cannot realistically hope to turn back the clock. But both at home and beyond Russia’s borders, especially in the escalating standoff with the West over Ukraine, he is clearly trying to undo some of the key changes brought about by the collapse of the USSR.

More broadly, he wants to expunge what he has felt to be the past three decades of national humiliation, by asserting Russia’s renewed status as a major world power.

Can he do it?

At home – at least in the short term – there seems little prospect of effective pushback. There, alongside a Soviet-style clampdown on human-rights advocates, Mr. Putin has also been rehabilitating the World War II role of Josef Stalin as part of an overarching national narrative of Russian greatness.

Those two strands were intertwined in a court case against Memorial International, an organization set up with the support of the dissident Nobel Prize-winning physicist Andrei Sakharov in the waning years of the USSR to chronicle the stories of the millions of Soviet citizens Stalin sent to their deaths. A sister group monitors contemporary human-rights violations.

Last week, Russia’s Supreme Court revoked Memorial’s legal status. And in the run-up to the ruling, a state prosecutor explained why the authorities were muzzling the organization. “Why do we, the descendants of [World War II] victors have to repent and be embarrassed,” he asked, “instead of being proud of our glorious past?”

Abroad, however, Mr. Putin’s rehabilitation project is facing sterner opposition, as Western nations rally to deter an estimated 100,000 Russian troops now massed on their border with Ukraine from any plan to invade.

In the eyes of Ukraine’s government, and its allies in Europe and the U.S., the troop buildup is the most recent of Mr. Putin’s threats to the stability, independence, and territorial integrity of a neighboring state, following his 2014 intervention in the largely Russian-speaking eastern region of Ukraine and his forcible annexation of Crimea.

For Mr. Putin, though, something wider is at stake: the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Yuri Ivanov/AP/File
Russia's then-President Boris Yeltsin (second right) and other leaders of former Soviet republics meet in Viskuli, Belarus, to sign an agreement creating the Commonwealth of Independent States on Dec. 8, 1991, as they left the Soviet Union. Two weeks later, eight other Soviet republics joined the alliance and on Dec. 25 of that year, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the USSR.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, an array of former Soviet republics, along with former Warsaw Pact satellite allies in Eastern Europe, turned their backs on Moscow to forge close ties with the West. A number joined the NATO military alliance, among them Poland, on Ukraine’s western border, along with Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

As far back as 2007, Mr. Putin was publicly insisting that NATO’s eastward “enlargement” had to stop. It has largely done so: Only the relatively small states of Albania, Croatia, and the former Yugoslav territories of Montenegro and North Macedonia have been welcomed in since then.

But two other countries, both former Soviet republics, have made no secret of their desire to enter NATO: Georgia, where Russian troops helped separatist regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia break away in 2008, and Ukraine.

Ukraine matters most. Historically entwined with Russia, it was – economically, politically, and militarily – a core component of the Soviet Union. Its border with Russia stretches nearly 1,500 miles.

For security reasons alone, Mr. Putin sees good reason to insist that Ukraine must not join NATO.

But his aim is broader: to restore to Russia – shrunken in both territory and power since Christmas 1991 – a measure of its former geopolitical clout in its dealings with the West.

In demands sent to Washington and NATO last month, Moscow insisted not only on a guarantee that neither Ukraine nor other former Soviet states would join NATO. It also demanded the alliance remove its military presence in East European member countries such as Poland, Romania, and the Baltic states, and forgo any deployment outside Western Europe that Russia deemed a threat to its security.

Western diplomats dismissed the menu of demands as a non-starter. If met, they would land the former Warsaw Pact countries back within a formally reestablished Russian “sphere of influence.” Neither they, nor NATO, are going to accept that, as President Putin almost certainly knows.

But with a trio of diplomatic meetings on the Ukraine crisis starting next week, he has already succeeded in grabbing Western attention, and in provoking a sense of urgency about dealing with the Kremlin not seen since the Cold War.

The question now? How much more it will take to convince President Putin to call off his military escalation.

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