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. However, it didn’t make an inevitable war.
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When the West responded on Tuesday to Russia’s request, it imposed sanctions against some Russian banks and stopped the approval of the German gas pipeline. However, the West wanted to allow for diplomatic negotiations that could dissuade Putin. “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.”
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Partly because it was ambiguous, the threat was very serious. Putin didn’t 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 called for more support from the West as the invasion began. 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.
Putin would consider this an act Western aggression. It was difficult to know for certain from his speech, but that could have been the point. Putin presents the U.S., its allies and partners with a very difficult choice by starting this war. The U.S. and its allies have two options: they can break their pledges of support to Ukraine and leave the country to Russia or risk becoming embroiled in a conflict with a nuclear power determined on their humiliation.
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Putin might also see that as part of the 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. These were war cries meant to be heard by all Western leaders. Putin now has the power to make Ukraine listen to his warnings and dare them to do so.