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Russia has responded to the demands from the United States and its NATO partners that Moscow cease its preparations for war against Ukraine. It’s not good.

If you can read Russian, the article is in the authoritative Russian newspaper Kommersant, here. If you don’t, I’ve translated the key paragraph below, but I could have summed it up just as easily as “an imperative reflexive verb and a pronoun.”

I’ll have more to say in the coming days, but here’s the gist.

The Russians said the United States had not given a “constructive answer”—this always means “the answer we wanted in Moscow”—about:

halting further NATO expansion; withdrawing the “Bucharest formula” that “Ukraine and Georgia will become NATO members”; and refusing to build military bases on the territory of states that were formerly part of the U.S.S.R. that are not members of the alliance, including using their infrastructure for conducting any military activity, including [offensive] strikes; and likewise about returning NATO infrastructure to 1997, when the Russia-NATO Founding Act was signed.


Russian tea leaves are never easy to read. I spent years doing this as a Sovietologist in the bad old days—which, sadly, are back—and this could either be the prelude to war or a middle finger to the West as Vladimir Putin heads back into his supervillain lair.

Given that the Russians are shelling areas along the Ukrainian border at this moment, I think that latter outcome is unlikely, but again, this could be either the opening salvo or a parting shot. Whatever happens, Putin is not done with Ukraine.

What’s important here, however, is that this refusal is shot through with a complete rejection of 30 years of peace and diplomacy. Putin, himself a decaying remnant of the old Soviet order, is saying, in effect, that everything in the former Soviet empire is still under the dominion of the Kremlin. Remember, demanding a reset back to 1997 means “before the Baltic states were admitted to NATO.” This would be resetting the Atlantic Alliance back to a time when only Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary were on track to join the original Cold War members of NATO.

Of course, this demand is impossible and Putin knows it.

So why make it? Because none of this is about NATO. It is, as my Atlantic colleague Anne Applebaum and the former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul keep pointing out, about a democracy of 40 million Slavs on Russia’s border. This is intolerable to Putin and he will stomp out this small flame of freedom, however weak and inconstant it might be, even at the cost of war.

If we buy into the narrative about NATO, Putin will win a tremendous political victory without firing a shot. War between Russia and Ukraine might yet be averted, but these are not terms the West can take seriously.