UKRAINE—To land in Kiev is to reach ground zero of today’s confrontation between Russia and the West. The start of the Ukraine conflict is, depending on one’s chronology, the defining moment of their crisis. It’s here that, in the spring of 2014, Moscow organized a referendum of dubious legitimacy to annex Crimea; that Russia used troops whose existence it denied to help rebels seize parts of Donbas, in the country’s east; and that those rebels, who said they were acting on behalf of a public with whom they didn’t check, proclaimed the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in that region. All of this followed the ouster of Ukraine’s president in what the West called a revolution and Russia denounced as a coup. Today, Crimea remains firmly in Russian hands. The self-styled People’s Republics are largely cut off from the rest of the country by a line of contact that brings daily hardship, exchange of fire, and death to people on both sides.
In a broader sense, the Ukraine conflict is a microcosm of what the West sees in Russia and Russia sees in the West. For Europe and the United States, it was typical Vladimir Putin. Moscow’s intervention was driven by fear of so-called color revolutions—the popular uprisings that brought down numerous Russia-friendly governments in the former Soviet sphere—and its refusal to see those former Soviet republics drift toward Europe or NATO. It involved the use of raw, physical force (with echoes of Russia’s role in Georgia before Ukraine, and in Syria afterward); blatant violations of sovereignty and unilateral changes to international borders; reliance on armed proxies; and forms of hybrid warfare. The Kremlin justified its meddling by tarring opponents with broad brushes (opponents in Ukraine were portrayed as neo-Nazis much as those in Syria are painted as terrorists; in both cases, the characterizations are true of only small minorities) or by obfuscating the Russian military’s role.