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Is Ukraine Putin’s Taiwan?

Make no mistake: As China regards “reunifying Taiwan” inevitable, Russian President Vladimir Putin has a similar view of returning at least part of Ukraine to Russia. How do we know? Putin has told us loudly and clearly. And given his history, late this summer or early in the Fall, Putin might act to turn some of Ukraine into a “Novorossiya,” or new Russia.

In an extraordinary 5,000-word essay released on July 12, Putin made a deeply historical, emotional, spiritual and political case for reintegration:  “…when I was asked about Russian-Ukrainian relations, I said that Russians and Ukrainians were one people – a single whole. These words were not driven by some short-term considerations or prompted by the current political context. It is what I have said on numerous occasions and what I firmly believe…

“Today, these words may be perceived by some people with hostility. They can be interpreted in many possible ways. Yet, many people will hear me.…”

Why did Putin write and release this essay now? Is it a precursor of what lies ahead? Or is it disinformation? The answers began more than 20 years ago. In his 2000 New Year address, Putin declared that Russia required a strong, non-ideological central government — in plain language, one that was pragmatic and autocratic. That is what happened.

At the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin launched a tirade against NATO, telegraphing greater Russian hostility towards the West. At NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit, when President George W. Bush announced that Georgia and Ukraine could join NATO, Putin was furious. Several months later, Putin laid a trap. Georgia was caught and South Ossetia was partitioned with Russian occupation. Given contested borders, Georgia is not eligible for NATO membership. And in 2014, Crimea was annexed. 

Where is this headed? Several weeks ago, Russia staged a large military buildup around Ukraine, possibly as a rehearsal. After withdrawing its forces, apparently Russia left behind substantial amounts of military equipment. Thus, with little or no notice, Russian forces can quickly return given that the needed heavy equipment is in place. Russia can also rapidly deploy its Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol as it did in response to NATO’s recent SeaBreeze exercise to block entry and exit through the Dardanelles. 

The intent is to intimidate Kyiv and Ukrainian leadership in an effort to secure part of eastern Ukraine and the Donbas as a protectorate or an independent province loyal to Moscow. And Putin has options. Rather than sending more troops into the Donbas, he could threaten occupation of Ukraine’s small Serpent Island 20 miles off the mouth of the Danube in the  western part of the Black Sea.  

This may sound far-fetched. But as Kyiv was impotent to prevent the annexation of Crimea with more than 20,000 Russian troops already stationed there or transit the Kerch Straits to the Sea of Azov, Serpent Island could become a potential fait accompli. It could be used to force Ukraine to agree to some partition as a quid pro quo for returning (or not occupying) the island. And this scenario is at least as viable as a Russian invasion of the Baltics or China of Taiwan.

Ukraine is not a member of NATO so Article 5 provides no defense. The Montreux Convention limits Black Sea access to non-riparian states. Foreign submarines are not permitted. Foreign warships can remain for 20 days, and countries can have no more than two present. And NATO’s Black Sea members – Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania – would be threatened.

In preparation for any possible contingency, NATO must act now. First, NATO should prepare for no-notice exercises to surge forces into Romania, Bulgaria and deploy strike aircraft to Turkey’s NATO bases. Second, NATO should plan for more naval exercises led by Turkey, which has submarines and a formidable military. Third, NATO should expand air policing missions based in Romania. 

Finally, President Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg should respond to Putin’s Ukraine ukase, reminding him that Ukraine is and must remain an independent state while rejecting the history lessons and noting that while Putin repeats Russian preoccupation with being invaded, this is 2021 and not 1812 or 1941. Pre-emptive rhetoric can go a long way to ensuring that Ukraine does not become Taiwan.

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is United Press International’s Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book, due out this year, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World.” 

Tags Annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation Black Sea Fleet Bucharest summit Enlargement of NATO Joe Biden NATO Russia Russian-US relations Russia–Ukraine relations Ukraine Vladimir Putin

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