As the invasion of Ukraine enters its third week, a bloody denouement in Kyiv looms ahead. Even a nuclear war has entered the domain of the possible. To get our bearings, to figure out what to do, we need to understand how we got to this point. As Isaiah Berlin liked to say, we need to be able to see the pattern in the carpet.
This war did not begin in 2022. It began in 2007, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech to the Munich Security Conference, refusing to accept the post-1989 settlement in Europe. This was followed by his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and his occupation of Crimea and the Donbas in 2014. We failed to see the pattern then. We must see the pattern now.
To understand why Kyiv is under attack today, we need to go back to Budapest in 1956, when a national uprising was defeated by Soviet tanks. Then in 1968, another movement for national freedom ended when Soviet tanks entered Prague. After that came Warsaw in 1981, when a people who had pioneered the first free trade union in Eastern Europe were locked down under martial law. The tanks were Polish, but the orders to deploy them came from Moscow.
This story of four Eastern European capitals, all under attack from Russia, over the past 70 years makes nonsense of the claim that NATO expansion eastward caused this crisis. After this history, Eastern Europeans understood that if they didn’t have a NATO security guarantee, they couldn’t keep their democracy. The West didn’t impose NATO upon Eastern Europeans: they demanded it and we would have been derelict not to have provided it.
Eastern Europeans have always understood that an authoritarian Russia, whoever rules it, has never tolerated a free state on its borders. Mr. Putin’s brutality has a pedigree. It mirrors the brutality of the czars toward the Poles in the 19th century and the brutality of Joseph Stalin toward his empire’s national minorities. Like his predecessors, Mr. Putin crushes his foes at home and abroad. Blaming it all on his demonic, even demented, personality misses the deep historical continuity in the use of Russian power within and beyond its frontiers. Equally, from the Decembrists of 1825 onwards, there have been courageous Russians willing to risk banishment and imprisonment to denounce oppression. Their courage reminds us that our conflict is not with the Russian people but with their regime.