Beyond Ukraine, Putin is looking at what he calls America’s ’empire of lies’

PARIS — President Vladimir V. Putin ordered Russian troops into Ukraine, but made clear his real target went beyond his neighbor to the American “empire of lies” and he threatened “consequences.” that you’ve never faced in your history” for “anyone who tries to interfere with us.

In another rambling speech full of historical grievances and accusations of relentless Western conspiracy against his country, Mr Putin on Thursday reminded the world that Russia “remains one of the strongest nuclear states” with “some advantage in several cutting-edge technologies. weapons.”

Indeed, Mr. Putin’s speech, intended to justify the invasion, seemed to come closer to a threat of nuclear war than any statement by a major world leader in recent decades. His immediate objective was obvious: to prevent any possible Western military movement by making it clear that he would not hesitate to escalate.

Given Russia’s nuclear arsenal, he said, “there should be no doubt that any would-be aggressor will face defeat and ominous consequences if they attack our country directly.” He added: “All necessary decisions have been made in this regard.”

Mr. Putin’s arrival in Ukraine and his thinly veiled nuclear threat have now shattered Europe’s notions of security and the presumption of peace it has lived with for generations. The post-war European project, which produced so much stability and prosperity, has entered a new phase, uncertain and conflictual.

In the run-up to Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a train of Western leaders have made the pilgrimage to Moscow to try to persuade Mr. Putin not to. The Americans were essentially proposing a return to arms control; French President Emmanuel Macron was prepared to seek a new security architecture if Mr Putin was unhappy with the old one.

The sincere, perhaps naïve, belief of Mr Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the possibility of bringing Mr Putin to his senses suggests the chasm between the worlds they inhabit. The Russian leader was not interested in picking up a fine scalpel for the European security order, but rather a blunt knife to carve, Cold War style, what is mine and what is yours.

Europe has regained its vulnerability. Mr Macron said on Thursday that Mr Putin had “decided to cause the most serious breach of peace and stability in our Europe for decades”. Of Ukrainians, he said: “Their freedom is our freedom.

But no European country, or the United States for that matter, will put lives at risk for this freedom. The question then is how they can draw a line for Mr. Putin.

After his short war in Georgia in 2008, his annexation of Crimea in 2014, his orchestration in 2014 of the military conflict in eastern Ukraine that created two secessionist regions, and his military intervention in Syria in 2015, Mr. Putin has clearly concluded that Russia’s willingness to use its armed forces to advance its strategic goals will go unanswered by the United States or its European allies.

“Russia wants insecurity in Europe because strength is its trump card,” said Michel Duclos, former French ambassador. “They never wanted a new security order, regardless of European illusions. Putin decided some time ago that confrontation with the West was his best option.

Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said discussions of nuclear conflict were “disturbing”. “But I find it hard to believe that any world leader, including Mr. Putin, is seriously considering using nuclear weapons in any of the scenarios we have here, for the simple reason that they understand the consequences. “, did he declare.

Yet history has demonstrated that European wars involving a major world power can spiral out of control. A long war in Ukraine could eventually spill over into Poland, Hungary or Slovakia.

Central Europe and the Baltic states, NATO’s real front line against Russia, will live with a sense of credible threat for some time.

A worrying scenario – remote but less so than before the invasion – is that Mr Putin, who demanded that NATO withdraw from formerly Soviet-controlled countries to regain his pre-enlargement position in 1997, will turn finally his attention to Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, the small Baltic states that now form the front line of NATO countries.

Mr Duclos suggested that Mr Putin’s aim may well be to install a puppet Russian government in Kiev and that if he succeeds, “he will want the same in the Baltic states”.

The three countries, subject to the Soviet empire after World War II, joined NATO in 2004. President Biden vowed that the United States and its allies would “defend every square inch of NATO territory”, meaning even a Russian attack on tiny Estonia could spark a conflagration.

Immediately after the Russian invasion, the three Baltic states and Poland triggered Article 4 of the alliance’s founding treaty, which allows members to hold consultations when they believe their territorial integrity is threatened. NATO therefore met in emergency session.

The fears of these nations were a clear sign of how the Russian invasion has upended European security and European assumptions in a way that seems certain to last.

But Mr. Walt noted that while in Ukraine “Russia cares more than anyone else and has more leverage to affect the short-term outcome,” that equation begins to change if Mr. Putin goes further. At this point, “resolve and abilities begin to shift in our favor.” He added that “my chances of dying in a nuclear war still seem infinitesimally small, even if they are greater than yesterday.”

European states, particularly France, generally viewed the American belief that a Russian invasion was almost inevitable as too alarmist, but the differences were glossed over in pursuit of diplomacy.

In the end, the diplomatic efforts the Europeans believed in were doomed because an increasingly isolated Mr. Putin was embroiled in a vengeful fury. He seems to see himself alone against the United States and what he describes as the “far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis” whom “major NATO countries support” in Ukraine.

Mr Putin’s growing anger over the past two decades has centered on Russia’s perceived Western humiliation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union 31 years ago and NATO’s subsequent expansion towards is to protect countries like Poland that suffered during the Cold War under Moscow’s leadership. totalitarian domination.

But the Russian leader has obviously turned his outrage into an all-consuming worldview of American iniquity. What this will mean in military terms in the years to come remains to be seen.

“Almost everywhere in many parts of the world where the United States has brought law and order has created bloody, non-healing wounds and the curse of international terrorism and extremism,” Mr. Putin. America’s conduct around the world was “rogue behavior”.

He continued: “Therefore, it can be said with reason and confidence that the whole of the so-called Western bloc formed by the United States in its image and likeness is, in its entirety, the same ’empire of lies’. “.

Mr. Putin seemed oblivious to the fact that the choreography of the Russian invasion was one of extraordinary, if predictable, doublespeak.

It included unsubstantiated accusations of “humiliation and genocide” perpetrated by the “Kiev regime”; recognition by Russia of the independence of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Lugansk so that these “people’s republics” can ask “for help from Russia”; and the assertion that Russia was therefore within its right under the UN Charter to respond to a request for assistance by sending troops “to demilitarize and denazify Ukraine”.

In the end, Mr. Putin appears to have had no hesitation in ordering Russia into Ukraine. He accused the authorities in Kiev – all neo-Nazi usurpers, according to him – of aspiring to “acquire nuclear weapons” for an inevitable “confrontation” with Russia.

He seems to have forgotten that Ukraine once had a vast nuclear arsenal before abandoning it in 1994 under an agreement known as the Budapest Memorandum. Russia was one of the countries that signed the agreement, promising in return that it would never use force or threats against Ukraine and that it would respect its sovereignty and existing borders.

So much for that.

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