President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia reportedly told a European official that he could “take Kiev in two weeks” if he wanted to, adding a new dimension to the tensions building in Ukraine as Russian forces become more involved in the fighting there.
As NATO leaders gather in Wales for a summit meeting, Mr. Putin’s remarks and the increasing presence of Russian military units in Ukraine have posed a stark new challenge to the alliance about how to respond to Moscow’s apparent willingness to exert military force to achieve its foreign policy goals.
The Kremlin did not deny the remark, which was published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica on Monday, but on Tuesday it denounced the European official, José Manuel Barroso, for leaking details of what Mr. Putin understood to be a private telephone call.
“Whether these words were said or not, in my viewpoint, the quote given is taken out of context, and it had an absolutely different meaning,” said Yuri Ushakov, a Kremlin aide, according to the Interfax news service.
I find it difficult to imagine a context in which these words would be any less troubling.
I have refrained from commenting lately on the Russia-Ukraine dispute because of its complexity. As you know, it has been my opinion that Putin has been unfairly criticized in the West, at times. And it is my opinion that the West foolishly exploited Russia’s post-Soviet weakness to advance its sphere of influence to Russia’s own border. I think Daniel Larison is correct here:
The U.S. and its allies are never going to care more about Ukraine than Russia, and they are never going to be willing to take any major risks on behalf of Ukraine. That was true when the crisis began last year, and nothing has changed since then. Several Western governments carelessly pursued a contest for influence with Russia in Ukraine without having any intention of dedicating the resources or taking the risks that such a contest required, and they did so without ever considering how negatively Russia would react to the attempt. Now that we can see how disastrously this has turned out, it makes absolutely no sense to repeat the error by encouraging Ukraine to fight an unwinnable war.
This is true. And yet, it’s important to say that Russia is behaving as an imperialist power here. Putin’s war on Ukraine is an imperialist war. We are not in a position to stop it, and shouldn’t even try. But we had better see Putin’s Russia for what it is: imperialist.