February 21, 2022
As I write tonight, the U.N. National Security Council is meeting to discuss Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recognition of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) as independent states within the country of Ukraine. Russian-backed rebels have been fighting the Ukraine government in those regions since 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Today the self-styled leaders of those regions asked Russia for recognition, and Putin granted it.
Upon his recognition of the states, Putin sent a limited number of troops into them, alleging that the invaders were a “peacekeeping” mission to support the Russian separatists, who do not control the regions. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, formally requested the U.N. meeting, citing Russia’s “ongoing aggravation of the security situation around Ukraine” and threats to “international peace and security.”
The events of the day began with a dramatic televised meeting of Putin’s security council in the Kremlin, with Putin asking his ministers if they supported recognizing DPR and LPR. While the meeting was presented as a “live” event, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, one of the advisors, was wearing a watch showing that the event was recorded five hours before, thus placing it before the “governments” of the regions asked for recognition.
Then Putin gave a long, aggrieved speech presenting Russia as the victim of the West, which had turned Ukraine into a “puppet regime.” He claimed that Ukraine is not, and should not be, a separate country from Russia. Shortly after current Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky won election in 2019, Russia began to hand out Russian passports to people in the two regions at stake today, strengthening Putin’s argument that the region is actually Russian. And yet, a poll from earlier this month showed that less than 10% of Russians want to invade Ukraine, making it a risky move for Putin.
Putin’s method for control of other countries has been to work for the election of friendly leaders who will permit the expansion of his influence. It is this history that is behind today’s advance on Ukraine.
In 2010, a pro-Russian politician, Viktor Yanukovych, won the Ukraine presidential election with the help of American political consultant Paul Manafort. Pro-democracy protesters forced Yanukovych from his post on February 21 in 2014, a date whose significance Putin’s actions today reinforced. Since then, Ukraine has turned back toward Europe.
Today, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky said, “we will give up nothing to no one” and that the borders of Ukraine “will stay that way, despite any statements or actions taken by the Russian Federation.”
Meanwhile, after the Belarus Defense Ministry said yesterday that Russian troops would stay in the country past yesterday, the originally scheduled date of their departure, it said today that Russian troops might stay in Belarus indefinitely.
It seems worth noting the similarities between the work Manafort did for Yanukovych’s campaign and his work for Donald Trump in 2016, right up to calls to imprison Yanukovych’s pro-NATO main opponent, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was imprisoned from 2011 until 2014, when she was released following Yanukovych’s ouster from power. And, once in office, Trump did, in fact, let Putin act much as he wished, especially with regard to Ukraine. According to Russia analyst Julia Davis, Russian state television last night said of the former president: “Trump gave us a 4-year reprieve.”
It is not clear if today’s developments are a precursor to a larger invasion, and that smaller incursion was likely an attempt to start a fight among Putin’s opponents over whether it is a big enough invasion to trigger the devastating sanctions the United States and European countries have prepared.
John McLaughlin, former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President George W. Bush and now of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, tweeted: “Putin has choreographed this with the hope that we and the Europeans will debate whether this is an “invasion” or not. And hoping that throws us enough off balance that he will pay a minimal price for this first slice of salami.”
Russia specialist Tom Nichols saw the same thing, tweeting: “Stop parsing ‘invasion.’ Putin just partitioned Ukraine by edict and is backing it up with force. That alone is reason to impose sanctions. Argue about which sanctions to impose, maybe, and leave some daylight for future moves, but this isn't about ‘is it an invasion.’”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield answered such concerns: “Tomorrow, the U.S. will impose sanctions on Russia for its violation of international law and Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We can, will, and must stand united in our calls for Russia to withdraw its forces, return to the diplomatic table & work toward peace.” Tonight, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba “to reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine.”
In response to Putin’s machinations today, the U.S. and U.K. immediately imposed limited sanctions. Biden signed an executive order economically isolating the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, banning all U.S. investment and business there, along with any imports from there, although it makes an exception for humanitarian aid. The executive order also allows the government to sanction individuals participating in the seizure of the region, as well.
In an address tonight, Zelensky told the Ukrainian people: “[Ukraine] is within its internationally recognized borders, and will remain so. Despite any statements and actions of the Russian Federation. We remain calm and confident.”
The price of oil rose more than 3% on the news, and stock markets around the world dropped.
Putin and his fellow oligarchs have amassed power thanks to the financial laxness of western democracies, which their money has helped to destabilize. With Putin’s attack on the international rule of law today, challenging western nations to stop him, Edward Luce of the Financial Times identified the larger picture: “Cannot be stated strongly enough,” he wrote. “If the west—chiefly America, but also Britain—doesn't burn its financial ties to Russia's oligarchy then Putin will prevail. This means taking on Wall Street, the City, law firms[,] realtors, the prep schools and western laundering outfits.”