The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This is the way the postwar world ends

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives a national address in Moscow on Feb. 21. (Aleksey Nikolskyi/Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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This is the way the postwar world ends, and the post-Cold War world, too: not yet with a bang, and not with anything close to a whimper, but with a rant. In an extraordinary soliloquy viewed live around the world Monday, President Vladimir Putin of Russia attacked and delegitimized not just independent Ukraine and its government but all facets of the security architecture in Europe, declaring both to be creatures of a corrupt West — headed by the United States — that are unremittingly hostile toward Russia.

By the time he was done speaking, Mr. Putin had not only broadcast his intent to disrupt institutions that have kept the peace in Europe, mostly, after 1945 but also laid out the ideological basis for launching a war — even if he did not quite declare it. The key point was to recognize two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, and thus to discard any pretense of respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity. More ominous, given his subsequent dispatch of “peacekeeping” troops over the border into the regions, was Mr. Putin’s demand that “those who seized and hold power in Kyiv” cease hostilities, or else “all responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodshed will be entirely on the conscience of the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine.” War looming, he had this warning to those who helped oust a Kremlin-backed regime in Ukraine in 2014: “We know their names, and we will find them and bring them to justice.”

Rebutting Mr. Putin’s arguments is almost beside the point — it’s doubtful even he believes his wild accusations about Ukraine as a future platform for NATO aggression — but not entirely. The truth is that Ukraine is a member state of the United Nations, whose security Russia itself undertook to respect 28 years ago, in exchange for Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament. Ukraine has not been waging “genocide” against a Russian-speaking ethnic minority, as Mr. Putin alleged, but defending itself from a 2014-2015 Russian destabilization campaign that created the breakaway regions and engineered the seizure of Ukraine’s strategic Crimean region on the Black Sea. Mr. Putin’s pseudo-history about the kinship of Russians and Ukrainians ignores those facts. His true reason for targeting Ukraine is not Russian national security but to preserve his own power in Moscow, which would be threatened by a successful democratic experiment in a former Soviet republic of Ukraine’s size and cultural importance.

Mr. Putin’s aggressive words and deeds followed a plea Sunday from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to assembled world leaders in Munich, in which he chided the United States and Europe for their failure to counter Mr. Putin sooner. In that city where Britain and France cut a foolish and short-lived deal with Nazi Germany in 1938, Mr. Zelensky used the historically freighted word “appeasement.” We would respectfully disagree, to the extent that after years of Western temporizing about Russia, President Biden has so far effectively rallied NATO to condemn and oppose Mr. Putin’s aggression in recent weeks.

After Monday, it is unfortunately clear that Mr. Putin has not been deterred, war is likely, and there is no longer any reason to wait in imposing sanctions — even extending them beyond the breakaway regions, which the White House immediately targeted. That would be the first step in decisively responding to this geopolitical crisis, but it can hardly be the last.

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