ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – Western leaders from President Barack Obama to Chancellor Angela Merkel are telling Russia not to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty. Vladimir Putin’s response as he prepares for military conflict: What about ours?
Putin’s been cautioning the U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization states for at least six years not to impede Russian interests in Ukraine, particularly in the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, home to its largest overseas naval base.
Putin told a closed NATO summit in Romania in 2008 that the military alliance was threatening Ukraine’s very existence by courting it as a member, according to a secret cable published by Wikileaks.
Putin said Ukraine’s borders were “sewn together” after World War II and its claims to Crimea, which belonged to Russia until Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954, are legally dubious, Kurt Volker, the U.S. ambassador to NATO at the time, said in the cable.
Four months later, Putin demonstrated his willingness to back up words with actions by sending Russian troops to war against Georgia over two Russian-speaking regions seeking independence.
Now, in Putin’s eyes, it’s the U.S. and the European Union who are pushing Ukraine to the brink of armed conflict by supporting the overthrow of Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
Elected four years ago, Yanukovych was deposed by Ukrainian lawmakers Feb. 22 after clashes with protesters left at least 82 people dead, the worst violence the country has witnessed since World War II. Russia’s Foreign Ministry called it a “coup” by “fascists” carried out at Russia’s expense.
What pushed Putin to ask Russia’s parliament for approval to use troops in Ukraine was a decision, unnoticed by much of the Western media, made by Ukraine’s parliament the next day, according to Sergei Markov, a Kremlin adviser who’s now the director of the Institute for Political Studies in the Russian capital.
That’s when lawmakers voted to overturn legislation making Russian an official state language.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov vetoed the change Sunday, but the move created “major fears” in the mainly Russian-speaking eastern part of the country, Markov said by phone.
In Ukraine, “the West is seeking to create an anti-Russia,” Markov said. “Putin doesn’t want to wait and see what happens, so he may engage in a small war now to protect Russia’s interests and avoid a big war in the future.”
Putin, 61, who once described the breakup of the Soviet Union as the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, was named “Person of the Year” in December by the Times of London for helping avert U.S. strikes against Syria. That effort “propelled the president back into the front ranks of effective world statesmen,” the Times said.
Russian state television stations, the most popular in the country, are in propaganda overdrive as the Kremlin seeks to rally the population behind Putin’s toughening stance on Ukraine, according to Katri Pynnoniemi, an analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki.
“Sevastopol is a hero-city in Russia’s national consciousness, and official Russian media is now exploiting that,” Pynnoniemi said by email, referring to the status awarded the city in Soviet times for its World War II sacrifices.
“This is a legacy from Russia’s military victory over the Nazis, and it’s being exploited in the Russian official parlance to de-legitimize Ukraine’s newly elected government.”