Many people on the left are looking at the confrontation between the U.S. and Russia over the status of Ukraine through the lens of the Cold War. But I wonder if this is the only frame that we should employ? Don’t we have to complicate this framing? I believe so.
Putin is more than a reactive and defensive actor in the present circumstances and generally speaking. By his words and actions, he is an anti-democratic, ruthless autocrat who crushes demoracy at home and aggressively interferes in the internal life of other countries (as we know) beyond Russia’s border. He possesses imperial ambitions to restore some version of the Old Russian empire or the former Soviet Union. At the center of both visions is the absorption of Ukraine.
These facts don’t lend any legitimacy to the expansion of Nato eastward at the end of the Cold War, as the U.S. government continues to do.. But it should inform our understanding of the present crisis. The violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty by Putin’s recognition of the independence of the separatist territories in Eastern Ukraine and the introduction of Russian troops to that area is an act of aggression and a violation of international norms. It’s misguided, illegal, and exceedingly dangerous, an attempt to resolve a complicated situation by military means.
What is more, these actions by Putin could well be the opening salvo, depending on how the international community reacts, to further aggression, to scaling up the invasion to the rest of Ukraine. Such an action would carry with it death and destruction on a barely comprehensible scale. Finally, like any war, it would run the danger of triggering a far wider war, including the danger of the use of nuclear weapons. And that would be catastrophic.
Restraint, de-escalation, and negotiation on all sides is the order of the day.