Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification for seizing additional territory from Ukraine signals his long-term desire to subjugate other Central and Eastern European countries, including current members of NATO, according to U.S. and European officials.
“The reasoning that Putin has presented, when he published his demands to NATO and to the United States earlier this year, this reasoning is signaling that his ambition goes way beyond Ukraine,” Germany’s Reinhard Bütikofer, a senior member of the European Parliament, told the Washington Examiner. “His ambition includes the zeal to establish security dominance of Russia over all of the countries that used to belong to the Soviet bloc.”
Russian military forces have entered Ukraine with the announced goal of partitioning the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine after years of fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists reinforced by Russian troops. That operation is far more limited than any hypothetical assault against a NATO ally, as Bütikofer hastened to acknowledge.
However, Putin couched the announcement in a lengthy historical argument that portrayed the formation of states that used to be part of the Russian empire before the rise and fall of the Soviet Union as an offense against “the historical destiny of Russia and its peoples” that flowed from Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin’s putative acquiescence to “nationalists within the country” after the First World War.
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“Why was it necessary to appease the nationalists, to satisfy the ceaselessly growing nationalist ambitions on the outskirts of the former empire?” Putin said, according to the official Kremlin translation of his address. “When it comes to the historical destiny of Russia and its peoples, Lenin’s principles of state development were not just a mistake; they were worse than a mistake, as the saying goes. This became patently clear after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.”
Putin argued Soviet leaders erred after the Bolshevik revolution by agreeing even to pay lip-service to the idea that the various states of the Soviet Union might ever be able to leave the bloc — a decision amounting to the “outright pillage of Russia,” as he described the break-up of the Soviet Union.
“I would like to repeat that the Soviet Union was established in the place of the former Russian Empire in 1922,” he said. “The disintegration of our united country was brought about by the historic, strategic mistakes on the part of the Bolshevik leaders and the [Communist Party of the Soviet Union] leadership, mistakes committed at different times in state-building and in economic and ethnic policies. The collapse of the historical Russia known as the USSR is on their conscience.”
That statement caught the attention of Western leaders, including President Joe Biden.
“He directly attacked Ukraine’s right to exist. He indirectly threatened territory formerly held by Russia, including nations that today are thriving democracies and members of NATO,” Biden said in a Tuesday address from the White House. “And there's no question that Russia is the aggressor. So we're clear-eyed about the challenges we're facing.”
Biden emphasized that U.S. forces are taking up positions in the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to deter any prospective hostility against those members of NATO.
"These are totally defensive moves on our part. We have no intention of fighting Russia,” he said. "We want to send an unmistakable message, though, that the United States together with our allies will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments that we made to NATO.”
It’s not just the U.S. enhancing NATO military posture in Europe.
“We have over 100 jets at high alert,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. "And there are more than 120 Allied ships at the sea, from the High North to the Mediterranean. We will continue to do whatever is necessary to shield the alliance from aggression.”
Stoltenberg acknowledged “a real risk” of a large-scale war in Ukraine but emphasized NATO would not fight on behalf of Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance.
“But when it comes to NATO allies, we provide absolute security guarantees. Meaning that we make it absolutely clear that an attack on one ally will trigger a response from the whole alliance,” he said. “And that's also the reason why NATO has increased its presence in the eastern part of the alliance, in a defensive manner, to make sure that there is no room for miscalculation about our ability to defend all allies. And as long as we do that, we will prevent an attack on the NATO-allied countries.”
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Bütikofer, the German politician, suggested Western allies would need to remain on the alert for a long time to come.
“This doesn’t look to me as an imminent threat, as of today, but we better take [Putin’s announcement seriously and ... take the steps needed to prevent occasions from arising where he might use to move beyond where he stands today,” he said.