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Like In A Greek Tragedy, Putin Is Feeding What He Fears Most

It's not the presence of Western weapons that scares Moscow, it is the idea of freedom. And yet by threatening Ukrainians with invasion, his neighbors and rivals in the West rally around that same idea. Has the would-be strategic mastermind in the Kremlin finally painted himself into a corner? Unfortunately, that's a dangerous place.

Photo of an ​anti Putin graffiti in Chernigov's subway, Ukraine

Anti Putin graffiti in Chernigov, Ukraine

Dominique Moïsi


In the midst of the Cold War, French philosopher Raymond Aron posed a hypothetical question: If NATO had never existed, would the Soviet Union have invaded the countries of Western Europe? "We'll never know,” he replied, adding mischievously: “But we can't say the opposite either.”

Now let us leave the Cold War of yesterday for a hypothetical of the nearly hot war of today.

Without the unity shown so far by Americans and Europeans in the Ukrainian crisis — far greater than in 2014, when “little green men” took control of Crimea — would Russia already be on the offensive, continuing in Donbas its slicing and dicing of Ukrainian territory?

It is far too early to tell. Especially since Russians may have only pretended to withdraw their forces to better jump on their prey in the days to come. Unless they considered that, having demonstrated their strength and determination, their actions were no longer necessary and even risked being too expensive?

The price for Russian oligarchs

By repeatedly emphasizing the profoundly “Russian” nature of Ukraine, isn't there a risk for Putin to wind up with too much Russian blood on his hands? He cannot just start a civil war between Slavic cousins with impunity, with a “if you don't marry me, I will kill you” type of argument.

Add to this that, notwithstanding the power imbalance on the ground, the use of military force could prove to be more costly in human lives for the forces involved, and far more expensive economically for the oligarchs who surround Putin.

What if they can no longer enjoy their luxury pied-à-terre in London?

Satisfying a claim to Russian identity, while restoring an important part of its past international status, is one thing. But it has to be worth the effort. Why conquer a few acres of land in Ukraine, if the price to pay for Russian oligarchs is the impossibility of sending their children to study in Switzerland or the UK? What if they can no longer enjoy their luxury pied-à-terre in London? Under their influence, the cosmopolitan city has become the world capital of money laundering, and more generally of all forms of corruption.

Russian army tanks are loaded onto railway platforms to move back to their permanent base after drills. on Feb. 16, 2022

Russian army tanks near the Ukraine border on Feb. 16.

Russian Defence Ministry/ZUMA

Ukrainians have never felt so European

If it were not potentially tragic and terribly dangerous for the safety of the world, the Ukrainian crisis would be full of irony and paradoxes. Indeed, by refusing categorically to allow Ukraine join NATO, Putin actually pushed Kyiv into the arms of the West and more specifically of Europe.

Faced with pressure and threats from Russia, never have such a large majority of Ukrainians felt so European. In 2014, when Ukrainians occupied Maidan Square — in a movement that resulted in the fall of the pro-Russian government which opposed the rapprochement between Kyiv and Brussels — one of my former Ukrainian students at the College of Europe in Natolin (Warsaw) reached me on my cell phone.

He wanted to explain to me the meaning behind his commitment: “I have a choice between a Belarusian or a Polish future,” he told me. “How could I possibly hesitate?" In 1990, the average incomes of Ukrainians and Poles were identical. A little over 30 years later, thanks to their entry into the European Union, Poles are three times richer than Ukrainians.

Even today, despite the undeniable political stiffening in Poland, Ukrainians vote with their feet and thousands still seek work if not refuge in Poland.

Could it be that by wanting to redraw Europe’s outlines for its own benefit, Putin's Russia has politically frozen the existing divisions even further and strengthened the camp of its main adversary (democracy) at its own borders? Did Putin choose the wrong target by emphasizing the NATO issue?

Putin plays the emotional roller coaster game

It is not the presence of Western weapons at its borders that threatens Moscow, it is the idea of freedom: It is the example of a quasi-democratic normalcy. What if “Little Russia” — an expression ofter used by Russians to describe Ukraine — was to become a model for “Greater Russia”?

They are motivated by the Russian imperial tradition.

In the aftermath of World War II, the USSR wanted to extend its ideology, either through Communist parties completely committed to its cause, or if necessary, through the intervention of its tanks. Indeed, those tanks were only as far away as “two stages of the Tour de France” — to quote General Charles de Gaulle's expression in 1947. The French leader had no illusions about Moscow's intentions. He was dealing with "Eternal Russia".

Today, the heirs of the USSR don’t want to extend their ideology — they no longer have one — even if they call out the decadence of Western-style democracy. They are motivated by the Russian imperial tradition and intend to regain, if not expand, their sphere of influence by formulating totally unacceptable demands such as the withdrawal of Western troops from the Eastern European countries that are members of NATO.

There is a risk in playing — as Putin seems to enjoy — an emotional roller coaster game: One day I reassure you, and the next I scare you to death.

At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the rules of escalation seemed framed by a clear perception of what was at stake: the survival of the planet. Sixty years later, awareness of these rules seems to have disappeared. And it is not certain that Putin is, like Khrushchev, a responsible man.

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