The limits of a Europe whole and free.

PARIS — For the prime minister of Lithuania — and Lithuania knows something of life in Moscow’s imperium — President Vladimir V. Putin’s rambling dismissal of Ukrainian statehood, used to justify sending Russian troops into the eastern part of that state, “put Kafka and Orwell to shame.”

There were “no lows too low, no lies too blatant,” the prime minister, Ingrida Simonyte, said of Mr. Putin’s menacing explanation on Monday of his decision to recognize two separatist regions of Ukraine, Donetsk and Luhansk. But if the speech revived the doublespeak of the Soviet Union, more than 30 years after its demise, did it also rekindle the Soviet threat and the Cold War that went with it?

On many levels, the challenge Mr. Putin’s revanchist Russia presents to the West is different. This Russia has no pretense of a global ideology. The Cold War depended on closed systems; computer technology put an end to that. No Soviet tanks are poised to roll across the Prussian plains and absorb all Europe in a totalitarian empire. Nuclear Armageddon is not on the table.

Yet, perhaps because of the way he prepared the ground for full-scale war, saying Russia has “every right to take retaliatory measures” against what he called a fictive nation led by usurpers who would be responsible for the bloodshed, Mr. Putin’s decision felt like a breaking point that went beyond his annexation of Crimea in 2014. It held up the specter of Europe’s darkest days. He laid down a marker, setting the outer limit of the Europe whole and free of 1989.

The Russian president’s aggressive move was a slap in the face to President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has led efforts to engage with Russia, and it left, at least for now, the idea of some reconfigured European security architecture moribund.

In its place, division and confrontation loomed in a world marked by what Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken called “President Putin’s flagrant disrespect for international law and norms.” The White House called Russia’s move “the beginning of an invasion.”

China, walking a fine line between its support for Mr. Putin and its support for the territorial integrity of sovereign nations, has declined to criticize Russia, while saying those norms must be upheld. Still, in a month when Russia and China cemented a friendship with “no limits,” Mr. Putin’s order to dispatch troops into Ukraine suggested how Russian military might and Chinese ideological and economic heft might form a potent anti-democratic front.

President Biden has often referred to an “inflection point” between liberal democracy and autocratic systems. For now, that point seems to lie in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of a country whose name means borderland.

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