Vladimir Putin didn’t declare war on Ukraine early Thursday morning. The Russian leader focused instead on the U.S. and its allies, placing them at the center of a speech that set the night’s invasion in motion. It was the West, he said, that created the “fundamental threats” to Russia that prompted him to attack Ukraine, and it is the West, he said, that Russia would seek to humble in the ensuing war.
“All of the so-called Western bloc, which the U.S. formed in its image and likeness, all of it in its entirety, is what’s known as the empire of lies,” Putin said. After the fall of the Soviet Union, he added, the U.S. and its allies “tried to crush us, beat us down and finish us off… We remember that and will never forget it.”
Only a day earlier, there was still room to hope that Russia’s incursion into Ukraine was part of a local conflict, focused on border regions Putin had long described as historical possessions of Moscow that had unfairly been taken away. His hour-long address to the nation on Monday—which was, up to that point, the most aggressive of his 21 years in power—ended with a promise to recognize the independence of those separatist regions. It was illegal and a flagrant violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. It did not make a larger war inevitable.
The West responded to Putin’s threat on Tuesday by imposing sanctions on a handful of Russian banks, and stopping the approval for a Russian pipeline to Germany. They wanted to make room for diplomacy to reach a negotiated agreement that would stop further escalated tensions. “If Moscow’s approach changes, we remain, I remain, very much prepared to engage,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Tuesday.
But by the time the missiles began to fall Thursday, hitting both military and civilian targets across the entirety of Ukraine, it was abundantly clear that Moscow’s approach would not change—that Putin intends this war as his revenge against the West, and the United States in particular.
Among the many threats he issued in his declaration of war, the most chilling was reserved not for Ukraine but for the “outside forces” who might come to its defense, a thinly veiled reference to Kyiv’s allies in the U.S. and Europe. Addressing them toward the end of his speech, Putin said: “Anyone who tries to get in our way, let alone tries to threaten us and our people, should know that Russia’s answer will be immediate, and it will lead to consequences of the sort that you have not faced ever in your history.”
Because of the ambiguity, this threat was serious. Putin did not say what type of support Ukraine might be considered a danger to Russia during wartime. In the course of the past year, hundreds of million dollars have been provided by the U.S. to Ukraine’s defense. And President Joe Biden stated that such support will continue in the case of Russian invasion.
The Ukrainian leadership asked the West for more support as the invasion progressed. President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday morning in Kyiv that he had spoken with President Biden and several of Europe’s leading statesmen with the aim of building what he called an “anti-Putin coalition.” Among the aims of this coalition, he said in a statement, would be to provide Ukraine with defense and financial support and, as he put it, to “close the airspace” over his country to halt Russian air attacks.
However, would Putin consider that an act of Western aggression It was difficult to know for certain from his speech, but that could have been the point. Putin presented the U.S. with a difficult dilemma by starting war. Either they will break the promises to support Ukraine or abandon Russia. Or, they could risk being drawn into war with a nuclear superpower determined on humiliating them.
Putin may see this as part of his point. On Thursday morning, Putin’s half-hour speech in Moscow was mostly a list his numerous grudges about the West. These include the Soviet Union collapse and the conflicts in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and other places. “One gets that sense that practically everywhere, in many regions of the world where the West comes to establish its order, they end up turning into bloody wounds that cannot heal, boils of international terrorism and extremism.”
These weren’t the words of an aggressor urging the West not to forget its own business as he settles scores with his neighbor. All Western leaders should hear this war cry. Putin now has the power to make Ukraine listen to his warnings and dare them to do so.