When he announced Russia's recognition of two "peoples' republics" in eastern Ukraine on Monday night, Vladimir Putin made a bizarre rant about how the Bolsheviks created Ukraine.
Moments before launching missiles at Ukraine early on Thursday, he said the former Soviet republic had to be "de-nazified", a term used at Yalta when the US, UK and Russia drew up the post-second World War order.
The Russian president shook history’s tail, and it stung us.
Will he now try to subject Ukraine’s 43 million people to Russian rule? Or will he stage a lightening war to permanently cow the Ukrainians, retaining only Crimea and Donbas?
If he goes for a long occupation will the Ukrainians, like the Afghans before them, eventually drive the Russians out?
If he goes after the three Baltic states, which are, like Ukraine, former Soviet republics, but unlike Ukraine, Nato members, we face a serious risk of nuclear war
For months the West tried and failed to read Putin’s mind. He negotiated, but at the same time raised military pressure. He practised “psy-ops” – a thousand bomb scares in Kyiv in January, according to the Greek Catholic patriarch – and cyberattacks. The negotiations were merely a screen for a brutal logic of power, for Putin’s determination to regain control of a country which he believes belongs to Russia.
"We thought the Soviet Union ended on December 25th, 1991," Sylvie Kauffmann, an editorialist for Le Monde, said. "But empires take time to die. We are witnessing an aftershock of the collapse of the Russian empire."
Does Putin want to reconstitute the Soviet Union?
The leaders of Belarus and Kazakhstan are already under his tutelage. If he goes after the three Baltic states, which are, like Ukraine, former Soviet republics, but unlike Ukraine, Nato members, we face a serious risk of nuclear war since article 5 of the Nato charter would force the alliance to come to their assistance.
Putin threatened nuclear war at his press conference with French president Emmanuel Macron in Moscow on February 7th, and again in the early hours of Thursday morning, when he warned of "consequences like none you have known in history" if the West intervenes in Ukraine.
As President Joe Biden told NBC news on February 10th, sending US troops to Ukraine, if only to evacuate US citizens, would risk igniting a third world war.
So economic and financial sanctions are the only means at the West’s disposal. Economic sanctions have failed to bring Cuba, Iran, Myanmar or Venezuela to heel. The EU’s policy chief Josep Borrell on Thursday promised the most severe sanctions in history against Russia. But Russian officials had mocked those announced earlier in the week.
“We don’t give a damn,” said Russia’s ambassador to Sweden.
"Welcome to the brave new world where Europeans are very soon going to pay €2,000 for 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas," Putin's sidekick Dmitri Medvedev tweeted.
This correspondent has strong memories of the euphoric ambience at the Élysée Palace on May 27th, 1997, when Boris Yeltsin signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Co-operation and Security between the Russian Federation and Nato. Men in suits and ties had buried the Cold War, I wrote on the front page of The Irish Times. Yeltsin promised to disarm Russian warheads, but he made it clear that former members of the Warsaw Pact and former republics of the Soviet Union must not join Nato.
When this was brought up repeatedly during the run-up to the invasion of Ukraine, Western leaders replied lamely that the Russians failed to get the promise in writing. Three former members of the Soviet bloc joined Nato in 1999, another seven in 2004, including the Baltic states who had been Soviet Republics.
A diplomat with vast experience of the Georgian and Ukrainian wars sees the April 2008 Nato summit in Bucharest as the move which laid the groundwork for the invasion of Ukraine.
George W Bush's insistence at that summit that Georgia and Ukraine be invited to join the alliance fanned their aspirations to become western nations. "We are seeing the consequences of Bucharest today," the diplomat said. "There is no doubt that this is revenge for Bucharest."
The policies of Bush and his vice-president Dick Cheney destroyed Iraq and the Middle East. By egging on pro-American democracies on Russia's borders, they can arguably be said to have laid the groundwork for the war in Ukraine.
Russia invaded Georgia four months after Bucharest. The US barely reacted when Russia violated the terms of the ceasefire. In 2011, Putin sent Russian forces to Syria. In January 2014, then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych backed out of a co-operation agreement with the EU at Russian insistence. The Maidan protests started. Hundreds were killed in violent repression. Russian "little green men" took over Crimea, which voted to rejoin Russia. The Donbas war started that summer.
Putin enjoyed near total impunity for all these military adventures while the West stood by impotently. That doubtless emboldened him to invade Ukraine.