MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s maneuvers in eastern Ukraine — and repeated statements about protecting Russian-speaking citizens wherever they live — are raising concerns that the former KGB officer is aiming to assemble a new Russian empire from the remnants of the old Soviet Union.
“Putin’s real plan is the destruction of Ukraine and the re-establishment of the USSR,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said hours after Mr. Putin on Wednesday outlined a seven-point plan for a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine that called for Ukrainian troops to withdraw from disputed regions in the former Soviet republic and for pro-Russia insurgents to “stop advancing.”
Mr. Yatsenyuk’s comments came as NATO leaders were meeting on how to deal with crises in Ukraine and the Middle East — a day after President Obama in Estonia accused Moscow of a “brazen assault” on Ukraine by supporting pro-Russia separatists in the eastern part of the country, a charge Moscow has denied repeatedly. NATO was expected to approve a rapid-response force of 4,000 troops in Eastern Europe, including equipment pre-positioned in countries near the Russian border.
Mr. Yatsenyuk’s allegations also echo multiple claims that have been made about Mr. Putin’s intentions since he first came to power in 2000, noting that he previously had called the breakup of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century because it left tens of millions of Russians living outside the borders of the Russian Federation.
Late last month, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said Mr. Putin is trying to build a new Russian empire for Moscow, and that the region now must choose whether it wants “a Cossack Europe or a democratic one,” the Reuters news agency reported.
In a recent interview with the World Post, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, said the Kremlin leader is aiming to destabilize Ukraine so that “Putin can assume power and abandon the effort to take Ukraine into the democratic West.
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“Those in power would then join Putin on the march to create a Eurasian Union. That Eurasian Union is nothing but a new name for the former Soviet Union, or for the former Czarist Empire,” Mr. Brzezinski said.
Mr. Putin himself has fueled such speculation with repeated statements about the necessity of protecting Russian-speaking citizens wherever they are.
When a joint session of Russia’s parliament met March 18, he urged lawmakers to accept a referendum held by residents in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula seeking to join the Russia Federation — a vote deemed illegal by the U.S. and other Western nations.
“Millions of Russians and Russian-speaking people live in Ukraine and will continue to do so. Russia will always defend their interests using political, diplomatic and legal means,” he said, noting the large number of Russians in Crimea and the region’s long history with Moscow rule.
In a July 1 address to Russia’s ambassadors at the Kremlin, Mr. Putin said, “I would like to make it clear to all: Our country will continue to actively defend the rights of Russians, our compatriots abroad, using the entire range of available means — from political and economic to operations under international humanitarian law and the right to self-defense.”
And he offered a sweeping description of Russian-speaking citizens to include “people who sense that they are a part of the broad Russian world, not necessarily of Russian ethnicity, but everyone who feels to be a Russian person.”
Moscow’s establishment in May of the Eurasian Economic Union, consisting of Russia and the former Soviet states of Belarus and Kazakhstan, has been viewed by many analysts as the first step in a drive by Mr. Putin to reunify, in one form or another, those former republics that contain significant numbers of ethnic Russians. And there are signs that Mr. Putin is unlikely to be satisfied for long by mere economic union with Russia’s neighbors.
In a highly choreographed appearance at a Kremlin-run youth camp in central Russia this week, Mr. Putin cast doubt upon the legitimacy of Kazakhstan’s statehood, suggesting that its long-serving president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was solely responsible for the Central Asian country’s independence.
“Kazakhs never had any statehood; he created it,” Mr. Putin said, triggering a sharp response from Mr. Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Mr. Putin’s words drew comparisons with his notorious 2008 comment to President George W. Bush that “Ukraine is not even a state.”
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a high-profile ultranationalist lawmaker who is the deputy speaker of the Russian parliament, continued the Putin theme later in the day, saying there is a growing “Russophobic mood” in Kazakhstan. About 3.5 million people among Kazakhstan’s total population of 17 million are ethnic Russians.
“Putin won’t stop in Ukraine,” commented Ukrainian political analyst Taras Berezovets, who was previously an adviser to former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. “His next target is Kazakhstan.”
NATO and the European Union have accused Russia of providing troops and weapons to separatists in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin denies the charges, although evidence to the contrary appears to be mounting. Russia’s Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, a civil rights group independent of the Kremlin, reports that some 15,000 soldiers have been deployed to Ukraine in recent weeks.
On Thursday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko expressed “careful optimism” that a peace deal could be reached with Russian-backed separatists at their upcoming talks, even as he and NATO leaders agreed that Moscow should be punished for its role in the insurgency, The Associated Press reported.
Mr. Poroshenko said he was ready to order a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine if a deal is signed at scheduled talks Friday in Minsk, Belarus. The rebels said they were ready to declare a truce if agreement can be reached on a political settlement for the mostly Russian-speaking region.
But NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen expressed skepticism about Russia’s motives in the peace process, saying previous inputs from Moscow “have been a smokescreen for continued Russian destabilization of the situation in Ukraine.”
Mr. Berezovets said he believes that Mr. Putin also has designs on Belarus, which also has a large ethnic Russian population.
“Putin has launched a process that he calls the restoration of the Russian world,” he said.
Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has caused jitters in the tiny Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, which all regained their independence with the split-up of the Soviet Union. Russia frequently complains about discrimination against ethnic Russians in the Baltic countries.
Unlike Ukraine and Kazakhstan, however, the Baltic states are all members of the European Union. They are also NATO members, meaning the alliance is obliged to defend them from any military attack.
“We’ll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania,” Mr. Obama told an audience Wednesday in Tallinn, Estonia. “You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”
For now, analysts suggest, the likelihood of NATO being forced to come to the defense of the Baltic States is remote. But as events in Ukraine have proved, the actions of an increasingly confident Mr. Putin are difficult to predict.
Mr. Obama also condemned what he called Russian “aggression” in Ukraine and said 200 U.S. soldiers would take part in a military exercise in western Ukraine later this month. Although the U.S. troops will be far from the trouble spots in the east of the country, their presence will mark the first time American forces have been deployed to Ukraine since the start of fighting there this spring.
The Rapid Trident military exercise is expected to involve up to 1,000 servicemen from NATO countries and allies.
NATO leaders on Thursday agreed to aid Ukraine’s military by providing a $20 million package to bolster the country’s cyberdefense and logistics, rehabilitate soldiers injured by the rebels and improve command, communications and control capabilities.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.