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Putin’s Perilous Course

NEW YORK – The dangers of the crisis in Ukraine cannot be exaggerated. Russian President Vladimir Putin is overtly and covertly inciting separatism in eastern Ukraine, and has declared Russia’s unilateral right to intervene there, in complete contravention of international law. Russia’s provocative policies are putting it on a collision course with the West.

Putin explained his point of view in a recent television appearance: Russia’s current international borders are provisional, determined by accidents of history, such as the transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, or the transfer of Russian territories to eastern Ukraine in the 1920’s. Putin claims that it is Russia’s right and duty to defend ethnic Russians in neighboring countries, especially in light of the arbitrariness of the existing borders.

If ethnic Russians call for a return to Russia, Putin asserts, then Russia must heed their call. Putin pointedly reminded listeners that eastern Ukraine was called “Novorossiya” (New Russia) in Czarist times, clearly implying that it could be Novorossiya again.

Evidently, Putin believes that relentless pressure and claims over neighboring states, designed to undermine their sovereignty and force them to accede to Russian demands, will result in a stronger Russia, better able to confront the West. In the recent past, Russia sharply opposed American and NATO military intervention in Libya, Syria, and Serbia on the grounds that the West was violating those countries’ sovereignty. Now Putin claims the right to ignore neighboring countries’ sovereignty on the pretext that Russia is merely defending the rights of ethnic Russians abroad, up to and including their right to secede and join the Russian homeland.