Events in the Russia-Ukraine situation have moved far faster than anyone imagined, and today we are watching Russian troops attempt to take Kiev as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine. This invasion will do to the reputation of Putin’s Russia what the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 did to the reputation of Nikita Khrushchev’s Russia. And rightly so.
This is an unjust, aggressive war based on weak justification. It serves only expansionist Russian interests, has already caused the loss of many lives, and threatens even more as an angry, emotional Putin sees the worst decision of his political life threaten to turn Russia into a pariah state.
Putin told the world, in a chilling speech, why he has going to invade Ukraine, immediately reigniting fears in any country that once had the misfortune of being ruled by a tsar or commissar.
The prospect of Ukraine becoming a NATO member was an existential threat to Russia, Putin claimed. But even observers sympathetic to Putin concede that his saber-rattling had already succeeded in scotching that idea. The invasion of Ukraine vitiated Russia’s recognition of Ukrainian independence and sovereignty in 1994, a recognition given in exchange for Ukraine’s giving up the 1700 nuclear warheads it had inherited from the Soviet Union.
None of this was unusual behavior for Russia, a country aggressive and duplicitous from its inception, for as historian Norman Davies has observed,
The self-styled Tsars of Moscow had set themselves the tasks of ‘recovering’ all the lands of ancient Rus, even though no significant part of those lands had ever been subject to Moscow. They set themselves up as the ‘protectors’ of all the Orthodox population in Ruthenia, even when the Orthodox declined such protection. The Muscovite army marched for the West in May 1500, and, in a sense did not stop marching until 1945.
A similar pattern repeated itself in this relentless expansion: all Slavs who claimed a connection to Kievan Rus were expected to regard themselves as part of a Russian people naturally subject to the Tsar; all Eastern Christians were expected to be subject to the Patriarch of Moscow, and any institution of local self-government was expected to be subject to the absolute, unfettered rule of the Tsar.
In some places, this process went smoothly and peacefully. In others, it did not. “Cossacks were billeted on recalcitrant villages, and given unlimited license to plunder, carouse, and kill until the peasants submitted,” Davies writes.
Uniate priests were faced with the choice between submission or violence. Parents were threatened with the abduction or mutilation of their children. …Eventually, the Uniate Church was so wasted that it could take but little advantage of the interlude of toleration in 1906-1914. Whenever possible, its adherents took refuge among their co-religionists in Galicia. The Terror to which they were subjected, for reasons of undiluted bigotry, was the true spiritual ancestor of the ideological purges of the Soviet period.
No Western people who have experienced Russian rule, whether under the tsars or the commissars, ever wants to experience it again. By invading Ukraine, Putin has stoked the fear of Russian rule, costing him friends and making even more nations want to join NATO, the expansion of which Putin cited as a casus belli. Finland, with its own unhappy experience of Russian rule, is seriously contemplating joining NATO, as is Sweden—voluntarily neutral during the Cold War but always well-armed, since the Swedes wanted to express their admiration for the Soviet experiment with Marxism without having to live in a full-blown “People’s Republic.”
Those formerly sympathetic to Putin are also turning on him. Czech President Miloš Zeman predicted that the Russians would not invade Ukraine because “they aren’t lunatics to launch an operation that would be more damaging to them than beneficial.” Now Zeman admits he was wrong about Putin, denouncing the invasion as “an unprovoked act of aggression.” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, another leader formerly friendly to Putin, condemned the invasion, as did his Foreign Minister Peter Szijijártó: “Hungary’s position is clear: we stand by Ukraine, we stand by Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
The Russians have long complained about NATO’s expansion eastward, and many thoughtful Americans warned that expansion was a mistake. There is no doubt that America would be better off if we had left NATO in 1991, after it had achieved the purpose for which it was created. There is also no doubt that evil, unscrupulous people have used NATO expansion to advance objectives wholly unrelated or even harmful to the defense of the West.
But the expansion of NATO, mistaken as it might have been, was not simply the result of American hubris. Fear of a revival of Russian power caused many nations, including those in Eastern Europe, to want to join NATO. Amidst all the criticism of NATO’s expansion, it might be worth offering some criticism of Moscow for not doing more to allay the fears of its neighbors who made the expansion possible. The mere fact that Moscow removed its troops when the Soviet Union collapsed was not sufficient to allay those fears: those countries knew that Russian troops could one day return.
The bitterest irony of this needless war is that the Europeans most alarmed by the revival of Russian power are not the fashionable types who are now sporting Ukrainian flags in their Facebook profiles. The western Ukraine is the most religious part of Ukraine. Neighboring Poland outlaws abortion, does not recognize gay marriage, and recently passed additional measures to limit LGBTQ propaganda. Poland’s unwavering support for Hungary is what enables Orbán to defy the EU and continue his increasingly successful experiment in conservative governance. Americans who used to be inclined to look favorably on Putin as a bulwark against globalism might want to reflect on these facts.
But none of this alters the central point: Putin has no aggressive designs on the U.S. The only threat Putin might pose to the U.S. is if, in reaction to feeling cornered, he decides to lash out at everyone with all the terrible means at his disposal. Therefore, unless something changes on the Russian side, we need to find a way to deescalate this situation, to allow Putin a face-saving way to back down, and to begin the process of gradually withdrawing from Europe without leaving our allies in the lurch.
America has been seriously harmed by our 30-year experiment in globalism. Fighting another war not related to any vital American interest might well prove fatal to our country.