By James Kitfield
As U.S. and NATO officials have scrambled to react to the evolving crisis in Ukraine, they have noted an alarming pattern of behavior by Russian President Vladimir Putin: At every juncture where they expected him to de-escalate the crisis, the former KGB operative has chosen instead to escalate and heighten the stakes involved.
After masked Russian troops seized government buildings in the Crimea province of Ukraine that hosts the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the Western alliance thus imposed sanctions targeting Putin’s inner circle. He responded by annexing Crimea and increasing his military support to separatist rebels in Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine. Following the recent tragic downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 with the loss of nearly 300 innocent civilians, U.S. officials attempted to shame Russia into standing down by releasing intelligence indicating that the Ukrainian rebels shot the airliner down with a sophisticated, Russian-supplied SA-11 surface-to-air missile battery. Putin’s response was to pour even more heavy weaponry, to include rocket launchers, into eastern Ukraine.
Last week U.S. and European leaders issued another shot across Moscow’s bow by announcing far broader sanctions targeting Russia’s energy, financial and defense sectors, even as Russian troops once again mass on the Ukrainian border and, according to U.S. intelligence officials, launch artillery barrages from Russian territory targeting Ukrainian forces.
And if the recent past is prologue, Putin will not respond by backing down this time either. Senior U.S. military officials say they have become convinced that, after a two-decade period in which NATO moved eastward, Putin is pushing back broadly, testing his and Russia’s limits. He is, in other words, acting out of a strategy that goes well beyond his moves into Ukraine. “I’ve been convinced for a long time that Putin is hell-bent on recreating the Soviet empire, and his aggressive pursuit of that goal won’t stop until the West stands up to him,” Gen. Joseph Ralston, the former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, said in an interview.
What could ensue is a new kind of brinksmanship that has echoes of the Cold War. “Russia has made a decision to change the accepted [international] order and the sanctity of sovereign nations, and my fear is that Putin may actually light a fire that he loses control of,” said General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking recently at the Aspen Security Forum. He noted that Moscow continues to stoke ethnic nationalism in enclaves of Russian-speaking peoples throughout Eastern Europe. “There’s a rising tide of nationalism in Europe right now that has been created in many ways by these Russian activities, and nationalism can be a very dangerous instinct and impulse.”
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