Editor’s note: Editorials are articles that present the opinion of the editorial team of the Kyiv Independent.
Yesterday was a one-of-a-kind day in the history of the modern world: 40 million people learned, on live TV, that their country shouldn’t exist.
That’s the verdict that Russian President Vladimir Putin, one of the world’s most powerful people, has signed for Ukraine.
On Feb. 21, Putin went on TV to read a long address that resembled a perverse history lecture. Its main message: Ukraine is an artificial state that was formed by mistake, as the result of the negligence of the Russian and Soviet leadership.
To support this deranged thesis, Putin offered a cobweb of fake narratives that are familiar for anyone who’s been following Russian state propaganda. Their utter insanity compares only to the confidence of Putin’s delivery.
This lecture in alternative history then reached its crescendo. After laying out why Ukraine’s existence is a mistake, Putin signed decrees recognizing the Russian-occupied parts of eastern Ukraine as independent states.
Of course, anyone watching Ukraine knows that Russia has de facto occupied parts of the country’s eastern Donbas region since 2014.
Using the confusion that followed in Ukraine after the EuroMaidan Revolution and the ousting of a pro-Russian president, the Kremlin cooked up a fake “separatist movement” in eastern Ukraine, installed its leaders there, and covertly sent in troops to back them and fight off Ukrainian government forces.
After his TV address on Feb. 21, Putin ordered Russian troops to enter the occupied areas for “peacekeeping.”
Make sure you read this right: Russia officially and openly sent its military into Ukraine’s territory – for the second time since 2014, when it annexed Crimea and permanently placed its military there.
On the next day, Putin further upped the stakes, announcing that Russia supports the territorial claims of the Kremlin-created militant groups to control the entire region of Luhansk and Donetsk. Currently, the Russia-backed militants occupy only about one-third of that area.
Now comes the decisive moment.
For weeks, the West has been promising to hit Russia with immediate sanctions of “unseen scale” if it further invades Ukraine.
Now the weak, appeasement-seeking politicians may try to claim that what Putin has ordered does not qualify as a “further invasion” and the promised sanctions held off or diminished to symbolic action.
This would be the worst mistake the West can make.
The United States, the United Kingdom and European Union must hit Russia with sanctions right now.
Not the symbolic ones, like the ban on investing in the occupied territories (who would want to, anyway?) that the White House announced on Feb. 21.
Germany halting the certification process of Nord Stream 2 and the U.K. sanctioning several Russian oligarchs and banks is a welcome start – but it can’t stop there.
Only if Russia is hit by ruthless sanctions right now, can it be deterred.
If he isn’t stopped now, Putin will unleash war on the rest of Ukraine. His delusional speech left no doubts: He is obsessed with the mission of ending Ukraine as an independent state. Will the world just watch him do it?
By recognizing the Kremlin-controlled militants in eastern Ukraine, Putin is testing the waters. How will the world respond?
At Russia’s security council meeting on Feb. 21, Dmitry Medvedev, ex-president and now deputy head of the security council, offered a window into the Kremlin’s thinking. If Russia recognizes the Ukrainian territories as independent states, the world will condemn it at first, but eventually, it will blow over.
“We know it from our previous experience,” Medvedev added, referring to Russia’s recognition in 2008 of the illegitimate states of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia in Georgia’s northern territories.
Are you listening, free world? Are you listening over there in Washington, London, and Brussels? It’s your call now. Will you let Russia have its way, now and forever?
Will you limit yourself to fiery speeches and symbolic sanctions? Or will you respond with full force and stop the delusional dictator now, before he inflicts even more pain and mayhem on the world?
This is not just about Ukraine. It’s a clash of two worlds, two polar sets of values. If Putin wins, your world loses. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow – but soon, and unquestionably.
Will you do something this time? Or will you once again let it blow over?