Vladimir Putin’s preoccupations drive a global crisis

For months, it seems, he’s been a man on an island while the world waited to see what he would do.

Partly because of COVID-19 fears and partly because of choice, all the recent images of Russian President Vladimir Putin depict a man profoundly isolated — seated alone at his box in Beijing to watch the Winter Olympics, receiving a parade of Western leaders at the far end of an absurdly elongated reception table, delivering what could be a declaration of war against Ukraine and the West on Monday while his advisers and generals sat in a semicircle of chairs at least 20 yards away.

Despite the distance, Mr. Putin offered an intimate glimpse into his thinking in a rambling, peevish, hourlong address laying out exactly why he was effectively taking another bite out of neighboring Ukraine and risking sanctions and perhaps the nastiest war in Europe in decades.

Russia, the message seemed to be, had been badly disrespected, and the target of his wrath — Ukraine — barely merited being called a country at all.

Sweeping through more than a century of history, Mr. Putin painted today’s Ukraine as a modern creation that is historically, culturally and linguistically linked to Russia. He charged that Ukraine had inherited Russia’s historic lands and after the West used the Soviet collapse to contain Russia. “I would like to stress it once again that Ukraine is not just a neighbor for us. It is an inseparable part of our own history, culture, spiritual space. They are our friends, our kin. They are not only our colleagues, friends, former fellow workers; they are our relatives and people linked by blood, family bonds with us,” he said.

Even more infuriating from Mr. Putin’s point of view, Ukrainians were turning their backs on the cultural and political wealth bequeathed to them from Mother Russia.

“Ukraine has become a colony of puppets,” Mr. Putin said. “Ukrainians squandered not only everything we gave them during the Soviet Union times, but even everything they inherited from the Russian empire.”

After his remarks, Russian state television showed Mr. Putin signing decrees recognizing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions’ independence, eight years after fighting erupted between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces there.

He mocked the Kyiv leadership’s attempts to escape the country’s Russian past and to throw in with the West. The newly independent statelets he recognized Monday have been part of Russia’s legitimate territory all along, Mr. Putin implied.

Mr. Putin mocked Ukraine’s “decommunization” campaign in which Vladimir Lenin’s monuments were destroyed. “You want decommunization, it suits us well,” he said.

“We are ready to show you what the real decommunization would mean for Ukraine,” he added in a stark warning that appeared to reflect a threat to take back the lands that he believed were “robbed” from Russia by the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

While he delights in keeping opponents off guard, the onetime KGB agent has been ultra-transparent in one sense, making no secret of how he views the sweep of history since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

A weak Russia, in his view, was bullied by the West in the aftermath of the Cold War, with NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe right up to the borders of Russia exhibit A in the case he makes. In particular, a “unipolar” world dominated by Washington was taking advantage of Russia’s plight to impose its vision on the world.

“One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way,” Mr. Putin said in his pugnacious 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference. “This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations. Well, who likes this? Who is happy about this?”

Since that speech, Mr. Putin has rebuilt Russia’s decimated military, stockpiled financial reserves and reoriented the economy to soften the blow of sanctions. He systematically sought to address the grievances he listed in that 2007 address.

In a Kremlin bubble where no one can get close enough — literally or figuratively — to persuade him otherwise, Mr. Putin is likely to keep going until he is stopped.

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