The first question is: how did this all happen? For a revolution, the Ukranian turnover in government proceeded quite democratically, though certainly not constitutionally. The government party of offset president Yanukovich succumbed to the pressure of the Euromaidan protests – a reaction to his decision to forgo an Association Agreement with the EU and sign a deal with Russia instead – followed by a unanimous parliamentary, and extra constitutionally vote impeaching him and installing a revolutionary pro-European government. When Yanjukovich was forced to flee on charges of mass murder of protesters, it seemed Russia’s influence in Kiev was dwindling.
That moment of glorious revolution was short lived when Russia reacted quickly, carrying out a fast, coordinated military operation which led to contra-revolutionaries seizing the regional parliament on the Crimean peninsula. Wearing no identifying national insignia’s, troops suspiciously speaking Russian and now believed to be part of the Vnevedomstvenaya Okhrana, Russia’s quasi-private Interior Ministry security force, seized Ukrainian strategic airports overnight which opened the way for an (in all but name) invasion by air. The following day, helicopters were seen crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border and some 2.000 paratroopers arrived at the earlier seized airports. Additionally, some warships of the Russian Baltic and Northern Fleet have been reported to have sailed into the Black Sea. A clear example Putin is not acting impulsively, as some Western reporters believe. To initiate such an operation, planning is needed. Something which Russian officials had time for to do since the Euromaidan protests started.
Flying in some 16.000 Russian troops supported by superior weaponry, Russia has now enough troops to encircle every Ukrainian military base on the Crimea and to block all supply routes from the Ukrainian mainland. Physically, the Russians have taken over the Crimea. But why is Putin so attached to this peninsula? For starters, the Russian empire started in Ukraine. Losing its birthplace to a pro-European government was already bad enough. In more recent history, Putin is all about reversing a now considered mistake by Chroestjov in 1954, when the latter gave the Crimean peninsula to the Ukrainian Sovjit Republic as a gift (symbolically, since it was only a transfer of soil from one Soviet state to another). Besides these historical reasons, Putin feels encircled by NATO. The Western military alliance has expanded ever eastwards in Europe to include neighboring states such as Poland and has signed treaties to establish NATO military, surveillance, maintenance and refueling bases in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. With looming European integration in Ukraine, the West has never been so close to Moscow. Loosing Ukraine to a pro-European government means it would be all the more likely to lose the Russian naval basis at Sevastopol, located at the tip of the Crimean peninsula and Russia’s last remaining overseas naval base and more importantly, the sole warm water port and the basis of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Russia’s power projecting capabilities in the Mediterranean and the Middle East are predominantly derived from its presence in the Crimea. The Russian strife is not, as it is described by US secretary of state Kerry, an ordinary 19th century land grab. There are some more serious issues at stake than strengthening Putin’s power base at home.
The Ukrainian government and armed forces are obviously no match for the Russian bear. The U.S. and European countries have pledged support to Ukraine, but real commitments which should keep Russia abbey remain to be seen. US forces have a strong presence in the region. The USS George H.W. Bush, an aircraft carrier, has just recently entered the Mediterranean and is being tagged along by a naval strike group bringing the much needed air and naval support for a military confrontation, alongside some other destroyers and cruisers. More importantly, there are the US Marines in Spain. A helicopter carrier transporting 2.400 marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, from the USS Bataan Amphibious Ready Group, is ready to go. Next to that, there are 3.300 paratroopers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade
stationed in Vicenza, Italy. As a part of a quick response unit, they can parachute in any nearby warzone, say Ukraine, on short notice. Doing the math, though, one can conclude Russia – with some 16.000 troops in the field plus some 13.000 stationed in the naval base of Sevastopol– has the military advantage in numbers and also has the advantage of shorter lines of communication, being able to send thousands more troops. No military operation is going to defeat the Russians. Nor has the alliance no incentive to get into a conflict on behalf of a non-NATO member.
The last options left are diplomatic and economic sanctions. In condemnation of the recent events, the G7 pulled out of the preliminary talks for the upcoming G8 summit in Sochi, Russia. However, this is probably all the international action to be seen. The United Nations Security Council is rendered useless since certainly permanent member Russia is not going to allow a resolution to pass. Economic sanctions will remain symbolical. The United States, with a much smaller trade balance with Russia than the EU has, can economically take on Russia, although possibly forgoing cooperation on the negotiations with Syria and Iran. Certainly the European Union is not going to support a sanctions regime, for the state leaders do not allow it. Germany, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom have strong economic ties with Russia and are far from eager to risk their relationship with Russia.
In conclusion, the Ukrainians definitely have lost. The Crimean declaration of independence of March 6th, is only a symbol of Russia’s hostile takeover. Remembering the short war with Georgia in 2008 and the subsequent occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Putin is not considering to return its price. For now, it seems Putin has won the game. But this could well be a pyrrhic victory. Russia has denounced the principle of state sovereignty, based on its self claimed right to intervene in its so called ‘near abroad’ to protect ethnic Russians in foreign countries. Focusing on the threats in the West, Putin forgets the growing, yet still slumbering, issues in the East. Rich with minerals and resources, its Eastern borderland is being taken over by an influx of Chinese immigrants. Although the Sino-Russian relationship is still strong, the need for resources for its growing economy could encourage China to adopt a similar strategy to intervene in domestic affairs on grounds of the right to protect its citizens abroad. In the mean time, Putin has set his goal to reestablish a Russian empire in the 21st century and this is the reason why the Western community has to act in the Eastern European region, its own backyard. It is a matter of time for Russia to decide to protect its citizens in countries such as Armenia and Azerbaijan. A NATO-membership would deny Putin any such ambitions.