The map of Europe is in danger of being rewritten. And it jeopardizes the peace of continental Europe. Because for several weeks Russia has amassed nearly 200,000 troops and massive combat power on the borders of Ukraine, its former sister republic of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (the USSR).
Russian tanks, artillery crews, combat aircraft, naval attack ships, special forces and blood banks are now ringing in Ukraine. And as we went to press yesterday, President Putin had ordered those troops into Ukraine and said that the Russian government now recognized as independent countries two breakaway regions of Ukraine where the Ukrainian central government was fighting to maintain his authority. By sending his forces into Ukrainian territory, Putin made it clear that he intended to wrest new territories from Ukraine, just as he wrested Crimea in 2014.
This ongoing Russian assault on Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty must be understood in the context of Putin’s driving ambition: the restoration of power and glory to the former USSR. Despite its name of union of republics, no one doubted that Russia was the most powerful force in the Soviet Union. And at the height of its power, these 15 republics of the USSR constituted a superpower that rivaled the United States of America (USA). Indeed, from 1950, the United States and the USSR were the main combatants in a global confrontation known as the Cold War. But in 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War ended, and a diminished Russia was reduced to its traditional borders.
Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy to ever hit Russia. He might have been right about that, but in a way he wouldn’t want to admit. Chief among them was the capture of the Russian state by an oligarchy who became extraordinarily wealthy by seizing state assets, privatizing those assets and in doing so they became one of the most rich in the world. And the biggest beneficiary of this was none other than Putin himself. Indeed, in his combination of private wealth and state power, Putin has created for himself all the powers of the Russian presidency that would surpass those of all former rulers of Russia. Simply put, Putin is the most powerful leader to preside over the Russian people.
The tragedy that Putin deplores is therefore not his personal fortune. What he really wants is that the world power that the USSR once wielded no longer be. The Russian economy is massively dependent on oil and represents only a fraction of the US economy. The Russian population is also significantly lower than that of the former USSR. Its territory is also massively reduced compared to that of its predecessor.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, did not cause the collapse of Russian military power. It remains the only country in the world that has the capability to annihilate the United States in a nuclear war. It is therefore essentially immune to military attack by the United States, the only country in the world that truly possesses this privilege.
At the same time, however, Russia must have watched with dismay as several of the former territories that made up the former Soviet Union joined the US-dominated NATO – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – comprising essentially the United States and all of Western Europe. . Quite frankly, NATO is the greatest military power in the history of the world. And those former republics that joined NATO are forever beyond Putin’s reach.
But not Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO although it wishes to be. Therefore, the military protection that NATO offers to its members does not extend to Ukraine. NATO countries will therefore respond with massive sanctions against Russia for its attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty, but their military will remain disengaged.
Or so we think. For if indeed the Ukrainians retaliate against the Russian takeover of their territory, no one knows how the fates of the war will unfold. But this we know. Putin is pushing Europe closer to war than it has been in 75 years.
And the last territorial war fought in Europe killed 100 million people.
This should be of concern to every country in the world.