Russian President Vladimir Putin began his televised address Monday night, when he announced his recognition of two separatist republics in Ukraine, with a lengthy history lecture on the “creation” of Ukraine as an artificial construct to serve the needs of the Bolshevik leaders a century ago. He then went on to another disquisition on the circumstances of the disintegration of the Soviet Union over 30 years ago.
Putin’s history lesson clarified, for those who did not yet realize it, that he lives in a revisionist historical reality of his own and that he’s determined, while there’s still a breath in his body, to turn back time until his narrative is reality.
Before that, he called a meeting of Russia’s Security Council, which recommended recognizing the independence of the “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk. There was barely a detail in the meeting that was connected to actual events.
Even the 90-minute broadcast, which purported to be live, had actually been recorded hours earlier. Like students who hadn’t prepared their lines for the annual school play, the council members were dragged one by one to a podium, some of them mumbling and getting their lines wrong.
Putin looked bored. He already knew the script anyway. Occasionally he corrected one of the speakers – like Sergey Naryshkin, head of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, who was berated by Putin when he didn’t seem sure whether they were debating annexation or recognition of the breakaway enclaves.
Some of the members were gung ho. Others seemed visibly unhappy at being forced to rubber-stamp such a fateful decision.
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With perfect timing, just before the council met, preprepared video statements were released by the Russian proxies in Luhansk and Donetsk asking Putin to recognize their fiefdoms as independent states. Simultaneously, the Kremlin’s propaganda channels broadcast footage of attacks carried out by “Ukrainian saboteurs” in Russian territory.
Forensic digital inspection quickly pointed out the obvious fakery in the productions. The time on Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu’s watch, clearly visible in the Security Council broadcast, indicated that the alleged events he was reporting on had happened after he made his claims.
The members repeatedly accused the Ukrainian government of carrying out “genocide” against the ethnic Russians of the Donbas region and having aspirations of using nuclear capabilities to produce a “dirty bomb.” They ignored the fact that Ukraine had voluntarily given up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union back in 1994, and that it is in fact Russia that is in breach of the Budapest Memorandum in which it committed to the integrity of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.
Who was the “Putin Show” meant for? Did he really think the world and Russia’s own citizens would swallow the completely false narrative upon which Russia may go to war? Maybe he doesn’t care and was just showing his contempt for the viewers powerless to stop him?
The way in which the Security Council members were forced to publicly endorse his move looked like an attempt to widen the circle of culpability for this breach of international law and the agreements Russia had signed. It was also an affirmation of Putin’s alternative history.
The recognition of the separatist republics in eastern Ukraine is not just a tearing up of the Minsk Protocol that Russia signed. It opens the way to a range of scenarios of military escalation. The first of these was seen Tuesday as Putin ordered Russian troops into Luhansk and Donetsk to act as “peacekeepers.”
So far, despite all provocations, Ukraine’s government has been extremely careful not to give the Russians a pretext to launch an all-out attack. But it will be very difficult not to respond to an independence declaration of major areas of its own country.
At present, the separatists control less than half the territory they claim. There are Ukrainian forces in the other areas. Now that Russia has recognized the LPR and DPR, it may act to help them take over the entire area. In such a case, direct clashes between Russian and Ukrainian troops is almost inevitable. And once that happens, Russia could use the opportunity to broaden the front to other parts of Ukraine. All in the name of preventing “genocide.”
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, could choose not to respond to the tearing-off of more swaths of his country, following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. That may well be the more prudent course of action – preferable to sending thousands of soldiers to die in a battle they will almost certainly lose.
But standing aside would also probably mean the end of Zelenskyy’s short political career, with his rivals blaming him for losing more land. And of course, there is no guarantee that it will be enough for Putin. He could always produce more “sabotage” attacks if and when he chooses to justify sending more “peacekeepers.”
Putin is still keeping his options open. For now, he can make do with recognizing the separatist republics, sending in the “peacekeepers” and leave everyone guessing his next move. The United States and its European allies have already given up on a military response to any Russian invasion of Ukraine. But will they announce the major financial sanctions they have been threatening if Russia invades? Britain is expected to announce a package of sanctions on Tuesday morning following Putin’s latest actions.
The main theme of Putin’s history lecture was that “modern Ukraine was completely created by Russia” and that it had never existed as an independent nation. As far as he’s concerned, Ukraine is a fictional country that was and will always be an integral part of Russia. This isn’t yet an announcement of war or the invasion U.S. President Joe Biden has been warning for weeks is imminent. Putin remains the only one dictating events.
This is so far a failure of Biden’s campaign to limit Putin’s room to maneuver. It is also a failure of the presumptuous attempts by French President Emmanuel Macron to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis by building a new “European security architecture” in coordination with the Kremlin. It should be clear now to all Western leaders, whatever their strategy, that Putin does not live or operate in a reality they recognize.