I remember the Soviet Union and the Cold War. I remember the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, and an air raid drill when I was in elementary school. Mutually Assured Destruction, nuclear-armed bombers constantly in the air, and the horrors depicted in Solzhenitsyn and White Nights.
Those memories, I’ve just realized, are what was on my mind while listening to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan give us a war warning this afternoon. (For those of you who weren’t paying attention, he urged all Americans in Ukraine to get out now, because a Russian military invasion “before the end of the Olympics” is possible.)
As the news stations have told us repeatedly in the last few weeks, very few Americans even know where Ukraine is, let alone what it stands for, or why we should care if Russia invades. And as a single country, somewhere out there in “eastern Europe,” Ukraine probably doesn’t matter.
But as a symbol, a sign, as step two or three in a very intense long game plotted by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine matters a great deal.
Putin has not made a secret of his desire to reconstruct the Soviet Union. He’s been working on it slowly and methodically, watching the West’s will to fight against it crumble as he goes. We lost our will to fight after two decades of dirty wars. Our reaction to the fall of Afghanistan, and the fact that we blame only our own government, rather than the Taliban, tells Putin we don’t have the stomach to do anything more than make feeble pronouncements when he does whatever he wants.
Putin’s first step in his grand plan was the theft of Crimea from Ukraine. Even then, we showed our stripes quite clearly when we made mealy-mouthed protestations of sanctions, but ultimately did absolutely nothing to prevent it or react to it.
It’s been eight years since Russia took Crimea, and in that time, not only we, but most Ukrainians have come to live with it. Listen to any reporter in eastern Ukraine: the one I heard today asked locals their views of a potential Russian invasion. Their responses were “what invasion?” while they listened to Russian television stations.
So Putin has no great fear of losing when he orders his troops into Ukraine (after sufficiently softening up the target by turning off the power and disrupting communications). And it will be a nice pincer move, since Putin already had Belarus in his back pocket. Russia will take over Ukraine, the US and NATO will make some half-hearted protestations and issue a few warnings not to attack any NATO members (which Putin isn’t planning anyway), and we will allow ourselves to be distracted by the latest scandal of the week.
But taking Ukraine isn’t his end goal. It’s just an early step.
The Soviet Union. Remember, that’s his goal.
So Putin and Russia take Ukraine. It’ll take them a year or three to digest it, but somewhere in there will be a new election with only one candidate—one who just happens to think a close alliance with Russia is in Ukraine’s best interests—and a hundred thousand Russian troops occupying Ukraine will vote for that new candidate, and a treaty will be signed, and Ukraine will take its place in the regrowing union.
Meanwhile, Belarus is nearly there anyway. The Union State of Russia and Belarus has been in place since the beginning of the century, with Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko (he’s been in office for 27 years) quite comfortable with their close relationship. Russia doesn’t need to invade. Heck, there are already tens of thousands of Russians in Belarus, at Lukashenko’s invitation, for “joint military exercises,” which we assume will move beyond Belarus’s southern border, and in two hours they’ll be in Kyiv. That makes a three-country union (the compact forming the Union State already has provisions for adding more countries).
And once it’s clear that those three are working together, it won’t be long before tiny Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia will also want to sign on, rather than being forced to do so.
Then Putin can look to central Asia. The violence in Kazakhstan is bound to flare up, time and again, until the leadership (though he left the presidency after 29 years in office, former President Nursultan Nazarbayev is apparently still the power behind the throne there) asks for Russian intervention to help secure the government. Well of course Putin wants to be a good neighbor. And of course Russia will have to protect their own interests in the country (for instance, the Russia’s Cape Canaveral is the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan). And the largest of the central Asian countries will once again become a welcomed part of Putin’s new union.
Once that happens, the other tiny central Asians—Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—won’t even be a blip on the world’s consciousness as they are re-absorbed. Oh, Putin may toss Kyrgyzstan and Tajkistan into China’s orbit, to placate his new buddy Xi Jinping, but that won’t make a difference one way or the other.
And voila, Vladimir Putin will be the first leader of the second incarnation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; a strong man in a world of sheep who don’t want to fight. Putin might not even care that he’s no longer getting love letters from President Donald Trump.
That’s what I was thinking, listening to the news this afternoon. That’s why a very good, productive morning turned into a rather depressing afternoon.