In the 1950s and 1960s, revolutions sparked by nascent independence movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia prompted the Soviet Union to unleash its military might to crush them.
Western countries led by the United States denounced the action but did nothing else about it.
The reason: Under post-World War II agreements between the nations that defeated Nazi Germany, Eastern Europe was considered a Soviet sphere of influence.
But 21st century Europe is different from 20th century Europe. As a result, when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his efforts to undermine Ukraine’s independence, President Joe Biden was able to orchestrate a broad Western response to Russian aggression.
Indeed, the only similarity between the current situation and the inaction of 20th century presidents is the caution that Biden and NATO are showing in seeking to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia, lest it trigger a Europe-wide nuclear conflict between the most powerful countries in the world. nations.
The current situation is based on the fact that when the countries of Eastern Europe freed themselves from Soviet domination and the Soviet Union itself collapsed in the early 1990s, its successor, Russia , has lost the ability to dominate countries outside its immediate borders.
At the same time, Western European democracies extended their influence eastward into the resulting vacuum. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, they admitted former Soviet satellite countries such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic and the three former Soviet Baltic republics, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, as members of their key alliances, the NATO military alliance. and the economic European Union.
This very loss of power is, of course, one of the main factors that seems to be motivating Putin, who has called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”.
As was the case with its invasions of Georgia in 2008 and the Ukrainian province of Crimea in 2014, it seeks to restore at least some semblance of a Soviet empire by restoring Russian authority over Ukraine, but it has defined his unjustified decision to release the Russian army.
But the former Soviet republic, which declared independence in 1991, has increasingly resisted Russian efforts to restore its primacy, particularly over the past decade, and is doing its best to remain independent.
One of Putin’s fraudulent excuses for action is the West’s refusal to guarantee that Ukraine will not join Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary, which were once members of the Union’s Warsaw Pact. Soviet and are now members of NATO.
But although Ukraine’s leaders have shown some interest in joining the Western alliance, and former President George W. Bush has already sought to do so, NATO members have made it clear that NATO membership Ukraine was not on their agenda in the near future.
On the one hand, Ukraine’s admission to NATO would oblige the United States and its allies to come to its military aid. This is something that NATO countries certainly try to avoid.
But the underlying irony is that, in his zeal to prevent the West from bringing Ukraine into NATO, which was unlikely, Putin has strengthened the position of the Western alliance in other countries. on the outskirts of Russia.
In recent weeks, the United States has moved thousands of troops, eight fighter jets and other warplanes to Poland, Slovakia, Romania and the Baltics, bringing them much closer to Russia than they wouldn’t have been before Putin triggered the current crisis.
How dangerous to overall European peace the current conflict beyond Ukraine’s borders will depend to a large extent on the extent to which Putin seeks to subdue that country and whether he launches cyberattacks or other attacks beyond of its borders.
It will also depend on how far Biden and the United States’ European allies go to follow through on his vow to make Putin pay “swift and severe” costs for attacking Ukraine – and how far Putin’s reaction will go.
However, it is already clear that the Russian president faces a much different and more resilient Europe in the 21st century than his Soviet predecessors faced in the 20th century.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News and a frequent contributor. E-mail: [email protected]
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