In recent days, Russia has resumed deadly attacks in its de facto war with Ukraine. Perhaps this is an early test of President Trump by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Perhaps Mr. Putin wagers that a newly nationalistic U.S. administration will have little appetite for foreign conflicts. Either way, one thing is clear: Ukraine is merely the Kremlin’s first step toward reassembling the Soviet Union.
Mr. Putin’s Russia illegally took control of Ukrainian territory in the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and is supporting soldiers fighting in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin denies the occupation of Eastern Ukraine and has crafted convincing propaganda to support its illegal seizure of Crimea. But have no doubt. The Kremlin seeks complete control of Ukraine. As long as Mr. Putin remains Russian president, this will not change.
The breakup of the Soviet Union was painful and humiliating for Russian society. By the end of the 1990s, nostalgia for the lost empire had grown. Skillful politicians such as Mr. Putin used that emotion to fuel a drive to increase the Kremlin’s influence in the region.
Mr. Putin relentlessly sought to fill the Ukrainian presidency with a politician loyal to him. In 2010, he finally succeeded when a pro-European coalition in Ukraine, hobbled by infighting, lost the election. Russia had poured vast resources into the campaign of Viktor Yanukovych, who won.
Mr. Yanukovych’s victory did not mean that Russia could lead an unimpeded march into Ukraine. In 2013, the Cabinet of Ministers announced that Ukraine was walking away from its efforts to join the European Union, but rank-and-file Ukrainians resisted. Rather than quietly backing away from Europe and into the arms of the Kremlin, they launched massive street protests in Kiev and elsewhere in Ukraine.
Tragically, Yanukovych forces fired live ammunition into a crowd of protesters, killing 50. Later, Mr. Yanukovych was found liable for the shootings, and on Feb. 20, 2014, he fled the country. The pro-European opposition in Kiev formed a temporary transitional government.
But Mr. Putin wasn’t finished. The Kremlin implemented its Plan B, which was designed to annex the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine. Armed thugs in Russian military uniforms (but without insignia) appeared on the peninsula, gained control of the primary infrastructure and blockaded Ukrainian military bases. Less than two months after Russia lost the Ukrainian presidency, it claimed Crimea as Russian territory.
In Eastern Ukraine, three years of continual warfare has turned the once-prosperous region of Donbass, now essentially controlled by the Kremlin, into a depressed region dependent on Russian subsidies.
The conflict in the East represents the Kremlin’s military efforts against Ukraine. After a new Ukrainian president and Parliament were elected, Mr. Putin’s Russia turned to nonmilitary means to destabilize Ukraine. The Kremlin’s campaign included propaganda, political provocations and corruption of Ukrainian opinion leaders.
The Kremlin’s most effective weapons have been Russian propaganda television channels that broadcast via satellite in Ukraine. Ukrainian leaders, who were democratically elected, are referred to as the “Kiev junta” that came to power “illegitimately.” In addition, the Kremlin mouthpieces compare the policies of the United States in Ukraine to Nazi Germany.
The Kremlin media also fabricate facts to mislead and deceive their Ukrainian audiences. Coverage of the Malaysian airliner shot down over Ukraine in 2014 is a prime example. An international investigative team concluded that the airliner had been downed by a Russian missile fired from separatist-controlled territory. In a laughable attempt to present an alternative narrative, Kremlin television broadcast an image that had been lifted from Google Maps two years earlier.
The Kremlin also supports radical political groups operating in Ukraine. The boldness of this interference is staggering. Legislation brought before the Ukrainian Parliament by the Russia-backed Opposition Bloc must first be approved by Mr. Putin’s administration. This was discovered after an email from the Russian president’s office was hacked and made public.
This spring, the Kremlin will launch another piece of fake news at Kiev — the so-called “Onyshchenko tapes.” Former Ukrainian parliamentarian and natural gas baron Alexander Onyshchenko, a close associate of self-exiled former President Yanukovych, claims to possess audio recordings of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaking disparagingly of the Ukrainian people.
In addition to being a useful Kremlin tool against Ukraine, Mr. Onyshchenko is seeking to distract attention away from the fact that Ukraine’s national anti-corruption body accused him of embezzling millions of dollars of state money. Stripped of his Parliament seat and accused of treason, Mr. Onyshchenko has fled Ukraine and is now a fugitive.
Before my friend Boris Nemtsov was assassinated just steps from the Kremlin, he used to say, “I don’t believe that friendship with Russia is bad. But I don’t like it when ‘friendship’ is forced by means of bribery and violence.” Unfortunately, there is no friendship with Mr. Putin’s Russia that can exist without bribery and violence. If the United States and the rest of the free world do not act to thwart Mr. Putin’s expansionism in Ukraine, the Balkans, Baltic and Caucasus will soon face the same fate.
• Ilya Yashin is a Russian opposition politician and co-founder of the Solidarity movement.