After annexing Crimea using masked men in military uniforms with no insignia, Putin found himself in a tight spot when the U.S. and her western European allies imposed sanctions against Russia. Denying what was obviously an invasion into Ukrainian territory, Putin pretended to play the role of a “peacekeeper” between the pro-western Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian separatists in southeast Ukraine. But how can he achieve peace when Russian troops masquerading as separatist Ukrainians using Russian heavy weapons are roaming around shooting at Ukrainian government forces?
What became apparent was that Putin in so many words had declared his intention to assert Russian domination over Eastern Europe – or what he referred to as “near abroad” – just like the days of the Soviet Union or, nostalgically, the glorious era of the Czarist Russian Empire.
Putin probably sees himself as the personification of Peter the Great, Czar Alexander I, and Vladimir Lenin all rolled into one. Like Alexander I, Putin was born in St. Petersburg, which was founded by Peter the Great. Like Lenin, who was the leader of the bygone Soviet Union, Putin is acting like the leader of a revival of the Imperial Russia of Catherine the Great.
Czar Alexander I is remembered in history as the one who defeated Napoleon by burning Moscow to deny Napoleon the victory of his lifetime. With Napoleon fleeing in retreat, Alexander said that the burning of Moscow had “illuminated his soul”; and declared, “Napoleon or I: from now on we cannot reign together!”
Today, Putin is faced with the prospect of a reinvigorated North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), his old nemesis, which has now expanded to 28 countries including 12 former Soviet client states. But Putin has nobody to blame but himself for the revitalization of NATO as a force in the geopolitical affairs of the western hemisphere. It is interesting to note that for more than two decades after the dismemberment of the Soviet Union, the acronym “NATO” took a new meaning: “No Action, Talk Only.” Now, with Putin rearming Russia like never before, a repeat of “Munich Appeasement” will not be allowed to happen again.
And when Putin mentions “Novorossiya,” it sends shivers down the spines of leaders of the “near abroad.” The term “Novorossiya” – New Russia — is the czarist-era name for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking southeast, which Putin is now eyeing as his next conquest. But Putin’s sight goes beyond the boundary of czarist Novorossiya. Recently, he has been using the term “Greater Novorossiya,” which includes a wide swath of contiguous territory from Russia’s western boundaries to the borders of Moldova and Romania. This would give Russia total control of the land on the northern shore of the Black Sea; thus, denying NATO access to the Black Sea by land. Although, NATO warships can enter the Black Sea through the Dardanelles Strait, which is controlled by NATO member Turkey, the Montreux Convention of 1936 limits the stay of naval ships not belonging to Black Sea states to 21 days. Control of the Black Sea then is crucial to Putin’s expansion plans.
In 2005, Putin said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a tragedy for Russians. “First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he said. It did not come as a surprise then that Putin had put Ukraine in his crosshairs.
But Putin’s incursion into Ukraine and his dream of a “Greater Novorossiya” came at a most inopportune time: the biennial summit meeting of NATO. The summit, held in Wales, brought together 60 world leaders, including NATO allies and partners. This summit was arguably the most important assemblage of world leaders since the founding of the United Nations in 1945 where representatives from 51 countries signed the U.N. charter. And what made the NATO summit extremely significant was Putin’s predilection for mimicking Hitler’s attempt to put Europe under his authoritarian rule. This time around, Putin would impose his opportunistic and imperialistic brand of world peace, “Pax Russica.”
While Ukraine’s new and dynamic president, billionaire-turned-politician Petro Poroshenko, was making a strong pitch for NATO’s assistance to stop Putin’s assault on Ukraine, he was also negotiating for a ceasefire with Putin by phone. A ceasefire was agreed upon and the fighting stopped; however, NATO leaders were skeptical about it. And true enough, less than 24 hours after the ceasefire took hold, fighting renewed in the government-held city of Mariupol, strategically located on the north coast of the Sea of Azov. If Mariupol fell to the pro-Russian rebels, it would open up a corridor from Russia to Crimea, which begs the question: Was this part of Putin’s grand design to create “Greater Novorossiya”? As the Ukrainian Interior Minister said, “Are you surprised that Putin is treacherous?”
But treachery has always been the trademark of a KGB agent, which Putin once was. And Poroshenko should know that; he didn’t make his billions playing patsy to anyone. Should the ceasefire crumble and the fighting resume, Poroshenko would be much better prepared for it. He said that the U.S., France, Italy, Poland, and Norway would provide Ukraine with military advisers and lethal weapons to defend Ukraine if Russia attacked.
“One for all, all for one”
But the game-changer that came out of the summit was NATO’s decision to create a new rapid response force to counter Russian aggression. It will have headquarters in Eastern Europe and a “spearhead” force consisting between 4,000 and 5,000 troops who would be in place to respond to any crisis, including Russian invasion, within 48 hours.
The reinvigoration of NATO from the doldrums of the post-Soviet Union era is a healthy sign for the “near abroad” states that live in constant fear of Russian aggression. With large populations of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking people, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are easy prey to Russian invasion. But with U.S. President Barack Obama reminding Putin that an “attack on one is an attack on all,” Putin should never in his megalomaniacal moments ever think of invading a NATO country.
Indeed, Putin’s Russia is no different from the evil empire of the defunct Soviet Union. At the end of the day, the re-emergence of NATO bodes once again that the good shall prevail over evil.
The ultimate question is: Would NATO allow Russia to dismember Ukraine with the creation of “Greater Novorossiya”? Time will tell.