Putin’s New Iron Curtain

Russian tanks cross into Ukraine
Photo by Sergei Malgavko via Getty
Julia Ioffe
February 24, 2022

The war arrived at 4 a.m. local time, just as the rumors said it would. It started with air strikes—in Kyiv, in Kharkiv, Mariupol, Ivano-Frankivsk—and then there were the amphibious landings in Odessa and Belarusian tanks coming over the border in the north. Just as explosions began to echo around Ukraine, Vladimir Putin addressed his nation, as well as the one he was attacking, something that he and his minions had promised for months that they had no intention of doing. This would be a “special military operation” Putin said, to “de-Nazify and demilitarize Ukraine.” His troops would rid it of the “junta” that had seized power and was committing “genocide” against the innocents. The perpetrators, he promised, would be tried and brought to justice.

But even as his forces were shelling the entirety of Ukraine—north to south, east to west—Putin made clear that his invasion wasn’t really about Ukraine. It was about the United States, about history and settling old scores, and rewriting the terms of surrender, thirty years later, that ended the Cold War. “After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., a redivision of the world began,” Putin announced Thursday just before dawn, sitting at his desk in the Kremlin. But “the people who declared themselves the victors of the Cold War” decided that they could do away with the norms that had become accepted, including the “key, fundamental ones that were agreed to as a result of the Second World War and, which in large part, secured its results.” 

Putin was referring, of course, to the division of Europe into spheres of influence, decided at Yalta in February 1945, as World War II was coming to an end. On that day, three men—Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Josef Stalin—representing the three victors in Europe, sat down and carved up a shattered, bloodied Europe. Without asking for the consent of the governed, Stalin took the countries in eastern Europe that his troops had liberated at great cost, and Churchill and Roosevelt took the continent’s western half. (Germany, of course, endured shared custody.) Other agreements would follow—as would a wall—and, in Putin’s mind, an equilibrium was established. The new North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, bound together the countries of the West, and the Warsaw Pact, which consisted of the Soviet Union’s satellites in eastern and central Europe, provided a counterbalance.