I'm having trouble finding Russia's official reason for invading the Crimea region of Ukraine. If my memory serves me right, didn't they change the reason halfway through the invasion?
At the time, there was no reason given, for the simple fact that Russia wasn't openly doing it. The Russian troops being used to take over strategic points (including the Crimean parliament) in the Crimean region of Ukraine were unmarked, and referred to by the locals as "little green men".
The official Russian line at this time was that the little green men must be locals, and if their weapons were Russian, they must have stolen them. This remained the story until after a referendum under the military control of the Russian troops showed that the local Crimeans loved Russia and wanted to join.
The Referendum in question happened on March 16, and a month after that, Putin was admitting Russian Special Forces had been used to allow that referendum to happen.
On Thursday, when asked about the soldiers widely known as the green men, Putin acknowledged that they were Russian. Their presence had been necessary, he said, to keep order so that Crimeans could decide their future in a referendum.
“We didn't want any tanks, any nationalist combat units or people with extreme views armed with automatic weapons,” he said. “Of course, Russian servicemen backed the Crimean self-defense forces.”
Russia Didn't Invade Ukraine Because of US 'Weakness'
One of the more vivid political talking points to come out of Washington in the midst of Russia's military incursions into Ukraine is that Russian President Vladimir Putin carried out such provocative actions because Obama's failure to enforce his "red line" on Syria and commence with a bombing campaign this past fall signaled to Putin he would not face consequences.
"I really believe that when Vladimir Putin looks around the world—sees what happened in Syria when the red line turned pink and the president didn't act," Republican Senator John McCain told CNN, "I think he's emboldened and he's acting."
The Wall Street Journal, similarly, put it down to "Western weakness," arguing "it's no coincidence that Mr. Putin asserted himself in Ukraine not long after Mr. Obama retreated in humiliating fashion from his 'red line' in Syria."
The truth is, anyone who actually believes Putin took military action in Ukraine because Obama backed away from his plans to bomb Syria illegally, doesn't know anything about international relations.
First of all, the most immediate parallel to Russia's occupation of Crimea, Ukraine's semi-autonomous peninsula, is Russia's 2008 military action in Georgia, another former Soviet state that was leaning too far West for Moscow's comfort. Following violent skirmishes, Russian forces occupied Georgia's separatist provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
This happened during the George W. Bush administration, which was so willing to use military force that it invaded Iraq on trumped up pretexts and in violation of international law. If Moscow were taking its cues based on Washington's willingness to use force, surely it would have held back in Georgia for fear of retaliation from the Bush administration.
Whenever the United States fails to act with violence abroad—a rarity, mind you—you have politicians and pundits howling about America's "credibility" being at stake. If other countries see us backing down, goes the thinking, they won't properly fear U.S. power and therefore they'll be unrestrained in their actions.
Actually, the technical political science literature has largely put the "credibility" argument to rest. "There's little evidence that supports the view that countries' record for keeping commitments determines their credibility," write two scholars who have studied the concept.
"The illusory belief of America's ability to shape, leverage, influence, sway, direct, or control foreign events is widespread within Washington's foreign policy community," writes Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Its direct implication is that whenever or wherever things go wrong elsewhere on earth, it must be America's fault."
Obama indeed foolishly drew a "red line" for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad: If chemical weapons were used in its civil war, he promised, the U.S. would use military force in Syria.
But when it looked like that red line had been crossed, the president found himself trapped in a box of his own making. As the administration began preparing for war, U.S. allies were unsupportive, the American people were strongly opposed, and it looked as if Congress would vote no.
In other words, if Obama had gone through with his promise to bomb Syria, the action would have had no international legitimacy and no Congressional consent. In fact, it would have been a war crime according to international law, which prohibits the use of force against another state without the approval of the UN Security Council or unless it preempts an imminent threat.
If anything, America's utter disregard for international law gives license to other powerful countries, like Russia, to behave similarly.
"The steps Russia has taken are a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty, Ukraine's territorial integrity&hellipthey're a violation of international law," President Obama said this week.
It's worth noting that this was exactly the argument Putin used in opposing Obama's plan to bomb Syria. He even wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times warning that such action would violate Syrian sovereignty and international law.
Russia also used this argument when it opposed the Clinton administration's military intervention in the Balkans in 1999. Serbia, a Russian ally, was quelling a separatist movement in its province of Kosovo and, under the pretext of preventing "ethnic cleansing," the United States bombed Serbia without UN authorization and without the justification of self-defense.
And of course there is the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which is a model example of the clearest violation of international law. It fit the description of what a Nuremberg Tribunal judge called "the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole."
If America flouts international law as a matter of routine, how can it then turn around and condemn Russia for its own illegal military actions?
Why Putin Took Crimea
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in early 2014 was the most consequential decision of his 16 years in power. By annexing a neighboring country’s territory by force, Putin overturned in a single stroke the assumptions on which the post–Cold War European order had rested.
The question of why Putin took this step is of more than historical interest. Understanding his motives for occupying and annexing Crimea is crucial to assessing whether he will make similar choices in the future—for example, sending troops to “liberate” ethnic Russians in the Baltic states—just as it is key to determining what measures the West might take to deter such actions.
Three plausible interpretations of Putin’s move have emerged. The first—call it “Putin as defender”—is that the Crimean operation was a response to the threat of NATO’s further expansion along Russia’s western border. By this logic, Putin seized the peninsula to prevent two dangerous possibilities: first, that Ukraine’s new government might join NATO, and second, that Kiev might evict Russia’s Black Sea Fleet from its long-standing base in Sevastopol.
A second interpretation—call it “Putin as imperialist”—casts the annexation of Crimea as part of a Russian project to gradually recapture the former territories of the Soviet Union. Putin never accepted the loss of Russian prestige that followed the end of the Cold War, this argument suggests, and he is determined to restore it, in part by expanding Russia’s borders.
A third explanation—“Putin as improviser”—rejects such broader designs and presents the annexation as a hastily conceived response to the unforeseen fall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. The occupation and annexation of Crimea, in this view, was an impulsive decision that Putin stumbled into rather than the careful move of a strategist with geopolitical ambitions.
Over the past two years, Putin has appeared to lend support to all three interpretations. He has suggested that Ukraine’s accession to NATO would have been intolerable and has also claimed that Crimea’s history had made the region “an inseparable part of Russia,” “plundered” from the country after the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Yet Putin also told me, at a reception in Sochi in October 2015, that the operation to seize the peninsula was “spontaneous” and was “not at all” planned long in advance. (Putin’s other explanations for the intervention—that he ordered it to protect Crimea’s Russian population from Ukrainian nationalists and to respect Crimeans’ right to self-determination—should be taken less seriously, since the nationalist threat in Crimea was largely invented and since Putin had shown little interest in self-determination for the peninsula for most of his previous 14 years in power.)
So what was the annexation—a reaction to NATO’s expansion, an act of imperial aggression, or an impromptu response to an unexpected crisis? The truth might involve elements of more than one theory, and some of the details remain unknown. Nevertheless, information that has surfaced over the past two years and insights from recent interviews in Moscow suggest some important conclusions: Putin’s seizure of Crimea appears to have been an improvised gambit, developed under pressure, that was triggered by the fear of losing Russia’s strategically important naval base in Sevastopol.
NATO’s enlargement remains a sore point for Russian leaders, and some in the Kremlin certainly dream of restoring Russia’s lost grandeur. Yet the chaotic manner in which the operation in Crimea unfolded belies any concerted plan for territorial revanche. Although this might at first seem reassuring, it in fact presents a formidable challenge to Western officials: in Putin, they must confront a leader who is increasingly prone to risky gambles and to grabbing short-run tactical advantages with little apparent concern for long-term strategy.
Consider first the notion that Putin ordered the seizure of Crimea to prevent Russia’s military encirclement by NATO. It is clear that enlarging NATO without making more than token attempts to integrate Russia helped poison the relationship between Moscow and the West over the past two decades, just as it is well known that Russia’s leaders are determined to prevent Ukraine from becoming a NATO member. But that does not mean that resisting NATO’s expansion was what motivated Putin in this case.
The biggest problem with the theory that Putin seized Crimea to stop Ukraine from joining NATO is that Ukraine was not heading toward NATO membership when Putin struck. In 2010, in large part to improve relations with Russia, the Yanukovych government had passed a law barring Ukraine from participation in any military bloc. In subsequent years, Kiev settled instead for partnership with the alliance, participating in some of its military exercises and contributing a ship to NATO antipiracy operations—an outcome that Russia seemed to accept. Indeed, when Putin, justifying the intervention in March 2014, claimed that he had “heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO,” he excluded an important detail: all the recent public statements to that effect by Ukrainian politicians had come only after Russian troops had already appeared in Crimea.
Even if Ukrainian officials had wanted to join NATO after Yanukovych’s ouster, the alliance was not about to let the country in. Putin had already won that battle at a NATO summit in 2008, when the alliance had chosen not to move forward on Ukrainian or Georgian membership. British, French, and German officials had argued that the two countries remained too unstable to be put on a path to joining the alliance and that doing so would also unnecessarily antagonize Moscow. Although NATO did not rule out Ukraine’s eventual accession, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remained opposed to practical steps in that direction, and U.S. President Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush, took no action to advance Kiev’s membership. What is more, in October 2013, just months before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s secretary-general, announced unequivocally that Ukraine would not join the alliance in 2014. There was little reason to expect that to change anytime soon.
Of course, Putin might have believed otherwise. If that were the case, however, he would probably have raised the issue with Western leaders. He seems not to have done so, at least not with Obama, according to Michael McFaul, who served as the president’s special assistant on Russia from 2009 to 2012 and as the U.S. ambassador in Moscow from 2012 to early 2014. During that period, McFaul was present for all but one of the meetings between Obama and Putin or Dmitry Medvedev, who served as Russia’s president from 2008 to 2012 while he was serving in Washington, McFaul also listened in on all the phone conversations Obama had with either Russian leader. In a speech last year, McFaul said he couldn’t “recall once that the issue of NATO expansion came up” during any of those exchanges.
If Putin’s goal was to prevent Russia’s military encirclement, his aggression in Ukraine has been a tremendous failure, since it has produced exactly the opposite outcome. Largely to deter what it perceives as an increased Russian threat, NATO has deepened its presence in eastern Europe since Moscow’s intervention, creating a rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops that will rotate among Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania and stationing four warships in the Black Sea. In February, the White House revealed plans to more than quadruple U.S. military spending in Europe.
Last January, I asked a source close to Oleg Belaventsev, the commander of Russia’s military operation in Crimea, if Russian officials had been worried about Ukraine joining NATO in the months preceding the intervention. “They weren’t afraid of Ukraine joining NATO,” the source replied. “But they were definitely worried that the Ukrainians would cancel the [Russian] lease on [the naval base in] Sevastopol and kick out the Black Sea Fleet.”
This seems plausible, since the Black Sea Fleet is crucial to Russia’s ability to project force into the Black and Mediterranean Seas and since many of Ukraine’s opposition leaders had criticized Yanukovych for extending Moscow’s lease on the base. Yet if securing the base was Putin’s main concern, as seems likely, the puzzle is why he chose such a risky strategy. With a contingent of around 20,000 well-armed troops in Crimea and a mostly pro-Russian population on the peninsula, it would have been difficult for Ukraine to evict Russia from Sevastopol, and in the past, Moscow had always found ways to protect its interests in the region without using force. Annexing the territory—at the cost of international isolation, economic sanctions, the reinvigoration of NATO, and the alienation of most of the Ukrainian population—seems like an extreme reaction to a manageable threat. Before the operation in Crimea, Putin’s decisions could generally be rationalized in terms of costs and benefits, but since then, his foreign policy calculus has been harder to decipher.
For those who see Putin as an imperialist, Russia’s moves in Crimea are easy to explain. After all, Putin has notoriously characterized the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” has claimed that “Ukraine is not even a state,” and has a history of meddling in countries on Russia’s periphery. In 2008, the same year that Russian tanks rolled into Georgia to protect the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russian officials were reportedly distributing Russian passports to Crimean residents, creating an apparent pretext for an invasion in their defense.
Other, more specific signs also seem to show that Moscow was preparing to seize Crimea in the six months before Yanukovych’s fall. Vladislav Surkov, a senior Putin adviser, repeatedly visited Kiev and Simferopol, the Crimean capital, in the fall and winter of 2013–14, in part to promote the construction of a bridge across the Kerch Strait to connect southern Russia and Crimea—an essential transportation link in case of annexation. Around the same time, teams of Russian police and secret service officers were seen in Kiev.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Konstantinov, the chair of the Crimean parliament, was making frequent trips to Moscow. On one such visit, in December 2013, according to the Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar, he met with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council and the Kremlin’s top security official. According to Zygar’s report, Patrushev was “pleasantly surprised” to learn from Konstantinov that Crimea would be ready to “go to Russia” if Yanukovych were overthrown. Just before Russia’s intervention, Konstantinov was back in Moscow, meeting with senior officials.
Other evidence also suggests a long-standing Russian plot to acquire the peninsula. In February 2014, according to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a memo circulated in Russia’s executive branch proposing the annexation of Crimea and other parts of eastern Ukraine if Yanukovych fell. With Yanukovych gone, the memo suggested, Ukraine would split into western and eastern parts, and the EU would swallow up the west. Moscow would need to quickly promote referendums on the issue of Russian annexation in the pro-Russian regions in the country’s east.
Yet on closer examination, the theory that Putin had long intended to take Crimea doesn’t quite hold up. Consider Surkov’s frequent trips to the peninsula. What the Putin adviser discussed with local leaders on these visits remains unknown. If Surkov was preparing for the region’s annexation, however, Putin’s next move seems bizarre. Instead of sending Surkov to Simferopol to oversee Russia’s intervention, Putin took him off the case in late February Surkov apparently spent most of March in Moscow, with enough free time to attend a gallery opening and even take a vacation in Sweden with his wife. Zygar has suggested that Surkov’s real assignment in Ukraine had been not to prepare for the annexation of Crimea but to keep Yanukovych in power—a task at which he failed, much to Putin’s displeasure. As for the police and secret service teams seen around Kiev, their role was likely to advise Yanukovych’s staff on how to crush antigovernment protests in the capital had they been planning for an operation in Crimea, they would have been sent there instead.
Indeed, many details that at first seem to indicate careful Russian preparation actually point to the absence of any long-held plan. For example, if Moscow had really been scheming to annex Crimea, it would not have merely discussed a bridge over the Kerch Strait with Ukrainian officials it would have built one. Instead, the negotiations had crept along for more than ten years, and between 2010, when Yanukovych and Medvedev agreed to build the bridge, and 2014, Russia did not even manage to complete a feasibility study for the project.
That a document as speculative as the pro-annexation memo revealed by Novaya Gazeta was circulating less than a month before the operation, meanwhile, suggests that Putin had not adopted a concrete plan by February 2014. And why was Patrushev, a senior official and reportedly one of the strongest backers of intervention in Ukraine, “surprised” to hear that the Crimean elite would approve of annexation? If the Kremlin had been contemplating an occupation, Patrushev would have seen intelligence reports to that effect by the time of his meeting with Konstantinov in December 2013.
In fact, until shortly before it happened, it appears that Putin did not expect Yanukovych to fall from power. If he had, he likely would have found some pretext to postpone the disbursement of a $3 billion loan that Russia had promised the Yanukovych government in December 2013. He didn’t, of course, and Ukraine’s new government defaulted on the loan in December 2015. As the political consultant and former Kremlin official Aleksei Chesnakov told me, “It’s not Putin’s style to make such presents.”
The clearest evidence against a consistent plan for territorial expansion is the chaotic way in which the Crimean intervention unfolded. Although the military component of the operation ran smoothly, its political aspects at times revealed an almost farcical lack of preparation.
Putin has said that he first instructed aides to “start working on returning Crimea to Russia” on the morning of February 23, after Yanukovych fled Kiev. In fact, according to the source close to Belaventsev, the commander of the Crimean operation, Moscow put Russian special forces in the southern port city of Novorossiysk and at the Black Sea Fleet’s base in Sevastopol on alert on February 18, as violence flared up between police and antigovernment protesters in Kiev. Two days later, on February 20, Russian troops received an order from Putin to blockade Ukrainian military installations in Crimea and prevent bloodshed between pro-Russian and pro-Kiev groups protesting on the peninsula. But they did not begin to do so until February 23, two days after Yanukovych left Kiev. The earliest steps in the operation, in other words, appear to have been tentative: Putin could have called off the mission if the agreement that Yanukovych signed with opposition leaders and EU foreign ministers on February 21 to hold early elections had stuck.
Belaventsev arrived in Crimea on February 22, according to the source. A longtime aide to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Belaventsev was unfamiliar with Crimea’s political scene, and after consulting locals, he persuaded the incumbent prime minister, an unpopular Yanukovych appointee, to step down. To replace him, Belaventsev chose an elderly Communist, Leonid Grach, who had been known in Moscow since the Soviet era.
What Belaventsev didn’t know was that Grach had alienated most of Crimea’s power brokers over the years—an oversight that Konstantinov, the leader of the Crimean parliament, made clear to Belaventsev after he had already offered Grach the position. To his embarrassment, Belaventsev had to call Grach to rescind the offer of the premiership only a day after he had made it. To head the regional government, Belaventsev then turned to Sergei Aksyonov, a local pro-Russian businessman and former boxer known to locals by the underworld nickname “Goblin.”
Even more surprising, in the days that followed, the Kremlin appeared not to know what it wanted to do with Crimea. On February 27, the region’s parliament voted to hold a referendum on May 25 to ask residents whether they agreed that Crimea was “a self-sufficient state and . . . is part of Ukraine on the basis of treaties and agreements”—in other words, whether they thought that the region should have greater autonomy but remain in Ukraine. A week after the beginning of the operation, Putin had not yet decided on annexation.
On March 1, Crimea’s parliament rescheduled the referendum from May 25 to March 30. Then, on March 6, the deputies advanced the date by another two weeks, and this time they rewrote the referendum question to ask whether residents supported the unification of Crimea with Russia instead of whether they supported autonomy within Ukraine.
Why did Putin raise the referendum’s stakes from autonomy to annexation? One reason was pressure from pro-Russian Crimean leaders, including Konstantinov, who feared ending up in a semi-recognized statelet like Abkhazia or South Ossetia, shunned by Ukraine and the West and too small to thrive economically. More important, having deployed Russian forces throughout the peninsula, Putin found himself trapped. To simply withdraw, allowing Ukrainian troops to retake Crimea and prosecute Moscow’s supporters there, would have made him look intolerably weak, and after the return of Ukrainian control, Kiev might well have canceled Russia’s lease on the naval base in Sevastopol. The only way Russia could have safely pulled out of Crimea would have been if the West had recognized an eventual vote for Crimean autonomy as legitimate and persuaded the Ukrainian government to respect it. Western leaders, outraged by Russia’s invasion, had made clear that they would do nothing of the sort.
For Moscow to back mere autonomy for the peninsula without Western support would have been dangerous, since Russia would have had to defend Crimea’s pro-Russian government against any attempt by Kiev to use the 22,000 Ukrainian troops stationed there to restore order. If, by contrast, Russia had chosen to expel the Ukrainian forces and defend the region against a counteroffensive, it would have aroused nearly as much hostility in the West as it would if it took control of the territory outright. By March 4, unable to find a viable exit strategy, the Kremlin had decided on annexation.
ON S’ENGAGE, ET PUIS . . .
All this improvisation makes it hard to see Russia’s intervention in Crimea as part of a systematic expansionist project. Any halfway competent imperialist would have known whom to appoint as the local satrap after the invasion and would already have chosen whether to offer residents a referendum on autonomy or annexation. And a resolute revanchist would have made sure to build a bridge to the target territory, rather than squandering ten years in fruitless discussions.
This is not to say there are not factions in the Kremlin with imperial appetites. Putin himself may share such impulses. It is likewise true that Russia’s leaders detest NATO’s enlargement and exploit it as a rhetorical rallying point. Yet such appetites and concerns had not jelled into any coherent plan for an invasion of Crimea. Until shortly before Putin’s commandos struck, the Kremlin had been preoccupied with events in Kiev.
If Putin’s main concern was Moscow’s hold on Sevastopol, this suggests several important points. First, the disastrous turn in relations between Russia and the West over the past two years might have been avoided had Ukrainian officials, as well as opposition leaders and their Western backers, consistently promised to respect the agreement that extended Russia’s lease on the base until the 2040s. To be sure, this agreement was highly unpopular in Ukraine. But had Ukrainians known that the alternative would be the loss of Crimea and a bloody war in the country’s east, they might have settled for the indignity of hosting a foreign power’s forces.
Next, it suggests that Putin has become willing in recent years to take major strategic risks to counter seemingly limited and manageable threats to Russian interests. By deploying special forces in Crimea without planning for the region’s political future, Putin showed that he is not just an improviser but also a gambler. Indeed, encouraged by the high domestic approval ratings his venture secured, Putin has continued to roll the dice, supporting the pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, bombing antigovernment rebels in Syria, and escalating a confrontation with Turkey over the downing of a Russian warplane in November.
The importance of Sevastopol in the case of Russia’s intervention in Crimea demonstrates the need to accurately identify Russia’s key strategic assets, as seen by Putin, if the West is to anticipate his moves in future crises. The Baltic states contain no Russian bases that might invite a similar intervention. In Syria, the port of Tartus—Russia’s only naval outpost in the Mediterranean—is probably too small and poorly equipped to matter much, although the Russian military might have plans to expand it. A greater threat could arise were Turkey to attempt to close the Turkish Straits, which connect the Black and Mediterranean Seas, to Russian ships. Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Turkey has the right to deny passage through these straits to military vessels from countries with which it is at war or in imminent danger of conflict. Were Ankara to take this step, it would make it much harder for Russia to provide naval support to military operations in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, such as its recent intervention in Syria, and that might provoke a furious and possibly disproportionate Russian response. That both Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan need to appear strong internationally for domestic political reasons renders the antagonism between them alarming, so Western leaders should make clear to Ankara that they would not support closing the straits if Russian-Turkish tensions rose further.
Putin’s recent penchant for high-stakes wagers may prove even harder for Western leaders to handle than a policy of consistent expansionism. A rational imperialist can be contained, but the appropriate response to a gambler who makes snap decisions based on short-term factors is less clear. In both Crimea and Syria, Putin has sought to exploit surprise, moving fast to change facts on the ground before the West could stop him. By reacting boldly to crises, he creates new ones for Russia and the world.
Russian forces expand control of Crimea
SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine — The embattled government in Kiev said Monday night that Russian forces had dramatically escalated the standoff between the two nations by giving Ukraine’s army and navy in Crimea a blunt ultimatum: Pledge allegiance to the region’s new pro-Russia leadership or be forced by Russia to submit.
A spokesman for the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which is berthed in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, denied that a threat had been made, and the Russian Defense Ministry called the accusation “utter nonsense.” But as Russian troops and warships surrounded Ukrainian security installations throughout the autonomous Crimean Peninsula, it was clear that Ukrainian forces believed they faced an imminent threat.
Early Tuesday, in a sign that he might be trying to diffuse tensions, or that he has accomplished what he wants in Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops conducting military exercises near Ukraine in Western Russia to return to their bases, according to Russian news agencies. The military exercises were scheduled to end today.
The standoff in Crimea continued.
There were several reports that a pro-Russian fighter who had taken control of an air base in Crimea fired a warning shot into the air Tuesday as Ukrainian soldiers returned to demand their jobs back at the Belbek airport.
A Ukrainian Defense Ministry official alleged that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet commander had set a deadline of 5 a.m. Tuesday — 10 p.m. Monday Eastern time — for Ukrainian forces to capitulate, according to the Interfax-Ukrainian news agency. There were no immediate reports of activity after the deadline passed.
The stepped-up Russian troop movements came two days after Russia’s parliament approved the use of force to protect the country’s citizens and military sites in Crimea, a region with deep ties to Russia. The actions on Monday triggered a cascade of condemnation from European and American officials, who vowed that Russia would face consequences if it did not pull back its soldiers.
President Obama said Moscow was “on the wrong side of history” and threatened “a whole series of steps — economic, diplomatic — that will isolate Russia and will have a negative impact on Russia’s economy and its status in the world.”
Here in the deep-water harbor at Sevastopol, a Ukrainian naval command ship was confronted Monday evening by four tugboats flying Russian colors and was boxed in by a Russian minesweeper. Other Russian warships appeared at the mouth of the harbor to block an escape to the sea. A nearby Ukrainian naval station flew a Russian flag.
As the anxious wives of officers on the Ukrainian ship watched from shore, its crew rushed about in what appeared to be an attempt to repel potential boarders. The sailors — who carried side arms and military assault rifles — fixed mattresses to the railings, uncoiled fire hoses and brought firefighting equipment on deck.
On Monday night, the Russian Black Sea Fleet ordered the crew members to lay down their arms and leave the ships, according to the UNIAN news agency, quoting a Ukrainian military source.
Ukrainian officials expressed fears that the tensions could lead to violence overnight, which could give Russia reason to justify military action.
“Provocations with killing of three to four Russian soldiers are planned on the territory of Crimea tonight,” said Ukrainian Deputy Interior Minister Mykola Velichkovych, the ministry’s press service reported. Speaking to the Russians, Velichkovych said: “We call on you to come to your senses. We call on you to stop.”
Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said Monday that he had been in communication with Ukraine’s military commanders in Crimea and that they assured him they would not yield to the Russians, according to the UNN news agency of Ukraine.
Western diplomats pressed Russia to pull back. In an interview with the BBC, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was in Kiev, said the Russian intervention in Crimea has produced “a very tense and dangerous situation” that amounts to Europe’s “biggest crisis” in the 21st century.
“The world cannot just allow this to happen,” said Hague, whose American counterpart, Secretary of State John F. Kerry, was due in Kiev on Tuesday.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the European Union would have an emergency summit Thursday and take action against Russia if it has not sent troops back to their barracks in the Crimea by then.
But the Western threats appeared to have made little impact on Russia by Monday night. Speaking in Geneva, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov justified the Russian troop deployment as necessary to protect Russians living in Crimea “until the normalization of the political situation” in Ukraine, where months of protests led to the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych last month.
Russian forces, already in control of much of Crimea, took possession of a ferry terminal in Kerch, in the eastern part of the peninsula just across a strait from Russian territory, according to reports from the area. The terminal serves as a departure point for many ships headed to Russia and could be used to send more Russian troops into Crimea.
Ukrainian news media reported that a representative of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet also called on members of Ukraine’s Aviation Brigade at an air base in Belbek to denounce the Ukrainian government’s authority and swear allegiance to the new Crimean government. By nightfall, the Ukrainian aviators were still on their base.
In the capital, Ukraine’s interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, urged the West to provide political and economic support as the Kiev stock market dropped a record 12 percent and the Ukrainian hryvnia fell to new lows against the dollar and euro. The crisis also caused the Moscow market to fall 10 percent and the Russian ruble to dive.
Yatsenyuk stressed that Crimea remained part of Ukraine, but he conceded that there were “for today, no military options on the table.”
Obama administration officials said Russia now has 6,000 troops in Crimea. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations said Monday that 16,000 additional Russian troops had been deployed to Crimea in the past six days. Military experts estimate that the size of the Ukrainian military in Crimea is about 30,000, but many of those are support staff.
Ukraine’s military, at an estimated 130,000 troops, is a considerably larger force than the small and poorly armed Georgian military that the Russians were able to intimidate in 2008, when those two countries went to war over breakaway territory.
But while Ukrainian troops have held firm and refused to open their gates, they are in an increasingly precarious position, “with no way out and no one to rescue them,” a specialist on military affairs in Eurasia said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is prohibited by his employer from talking to the news media without permission.
“The Russian troops surrounding them are clearly well-trained special forces, well-disciplined enough that they managed to box up the Ukrainian forces without firing a shot,” the specialist said.
But some military experts said that despite appearances, they doubt that Russia is eager for a fight that might carry a steep price. Even in eastern Ukraine, where Russian is the predominant language, an incursion by Moscow could unify the divided country, said Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses in Alexandria, Va.
“They are certainly more pro-Russian and Russian speaking” in the east, he said, “but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a Ukrainian national identity, especially when they are attacked. It is hard to imagine a course of action on the part of Russia that could have done more to unify Ukraine than what has been done.”
The Ukrainian military has no obvious fault lines, no ethnic or regional differences, that might make it vulnerable to defection and dissension.
At the same time, individual loyalties are unknown. If Yanukovych were to appoint himself head of a government in exile, he might be able to call in old favors from among officers. Like other institutions in Ukraine, the military has been beset by corruption, which could mean officers might be beholden to people other than their superiors.
In Sevastopol, a Ukrainian admiral who defected to the side of the pro-
Russian Crimean government tried to persuade his fellow officers in a meeting Monday morning to join him. They refused.
As they did in Sunday’s standoff at a Ukrainian army base in Perevalne, armed Russian troops, demonstrating who was in charge, posted guards at the gates of the Ukraine naval station in Sevastopol as Ukrainian marines appeared to be trapped inside the base.
Englund reported from Kiev. Kathy Lally in Moscow and Greg Jaffe in Washington contributed to this report.
Ukraine crisis: Why is Crimea so important to Russia?
With the peninsula seemingly now under complete Russian control, we take a look at why President Vladimir Putin has targeted the region - and what the rest of the world should be doing about it.
Why is Crimea so important to Russia?
Crimea is strategically important as a base for the Russian navy. The Black Sea Fleet has been based on the peninsula since it was founded by Prince Potemkin in 1783. The fleet’s strategic position helped Russia defeat Georgia in the South Ossetia war in 2008, and remains crucial to Russian security interests in the region.
What can Russia hope to gain in Crimea?
Crimea still has a 60 per cent Russian population. Relations have been tense between Russia and Ukraine since the peninsula formally became part of Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Last week Russia’s upper house of parliament approved the use of force in Crimea, and the country has since demanded Ukrainian forces in the region surrender.
Is anyone obligated to defend the region?
The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurance was signed in 1994 by Ukraine, the United States, Britain and Russia, to protect Ukraine’s territory and sovereignty after its soviet nuclear weapons were removed. However, it is a diplomatic document rather than a formal treaty and its legality is complex. It is said to morally oblige signatories to intervene in the event that Ukraine is threatened, but it cannot be enforced.
Will Nato act?
Ukraine is not one of the 28 member countries, however Nato officials warned they would back the “inviolability of [Ukraine’s] frontiers”.
Will the United Nations act?
As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia is likely to block any UN mission to the region. The council met in a closed doors emergency session last Friday, and this week secretary general Ban Ki-moon called on Russia to "refrain from any acts that could further escalate the situation".
What about the world’s only superpower?
President Obama warned Russia that there would be serious “costs” to any Russian military intervention in Ukraine. However, after failing to intervene in Syria and facing gridlock in Congress, it is unlikely that Obama would be willing to sacrifice the political capital to stage an intervention before the mid-term elections this November.
What does Russia want with Ukraine?
The two countries have been intertwined for more than 1,000 years, not all of it peaceful by any means.
Russia sees the Ukraine as highly strategic – due to Ukraine’s coast it gives Russian ships access to the Black Sea and a warm water port along its Western borders.
It is also important for Russia as it tries to hang on to its “sphere of influence” with countries on its Western borders after the collapse of the Soviet Union and many of its former satellite countries allying themselves with the West in general and the European Union specifically.
Ukraine is also strategic for transit routes for its natural gas pipelines to the west. Losing control of the country would mean losing control of much needed revenue.
Ukraine, particularly the eastern parts, are home to an estimated 7.5million ethnic Russians.
The country is also prized for its fertile plains and rich, dark soil with Ukraine often referred to as “the breadbasket of Europe”.
Where Ukrainians Are Preparing for All-Out War With Russia
A dried-up canal running from Ukraine into Russian-occupied Crimea is emerging as one of Europe’s main flash points.
KALANCHAK, Ukraine — A makeshift dam of sand and clay, covered with patches of grass, blocks one of Europe’s great canals. Beyond it, swans drift in the trickle of water that remains. A duck slides into a wall of reeds below the bare, concrete banks.
This quiet spot just north of Crimea may not look like much. But some Ukrainians fear it could be the thing that ignites an all-out war with Russia.
“Putin could send his troops in here at any moment,” said Olha Lomonosova, 38, explaining why she had packed a getaway suitcase this year at her home upstream. “He needs water.”
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia ordered some of the troops he had massed on Ukraine’s border this spring to pull back last month, but as many as 80,000 remain within striking distance, and many Ukrainians believe that the threat of a new invasion remains. A prime reason is the 250-mile-long Northern Crimean Canal linking Crimea with Ukraine’s Dnieper River: the main source of water for Crimea until Mr. Putin annexed it in 2014 and Ukraine, in a secret operation, hastily built the dam to block the canal’s flow.
Now, the fertile plain through which the canal runs in southern Ukraine’s Kherson Region has emerged as one of Europe’s main geopolitical flash points. The tensions over the canal spiked in recent months after a drought worsened Crimea’s water crisis, the risk of escalation rising along with the temperature of Mr. Putin’s showdown with the West.
High-powered television transmitters have gone up just over the border in Crimea, beaming the Kremlin’s narrative into Ukrainian-controlled territory. At the canal’s source, huge Soviet-era letters announce “Northern Crimean Canal” in Russian, but they are now painted blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
The canal is a concrete symbol of the ties that once bound Russia and Ukraine — and of Ukraine’s fundamental challenge of extricating itself from its Soviet past. Water continues to flow through the canal for 57 miles inside Ukraine before the dam cuts off the flow to Crimea, irrigating a land of melon fields and peach orchards where Russian is widely spoken even as a Ukrainian identity is being formed.
A shared Soviet past with Russia still evokes nostalgia among some older Ukrainians, and the Kremlin’s propaganda effort has not let up in the hope that pro-Russian attitudes will one day undo Kyiv’s pivot toward the West. But that nostalgia — along with lingering skepticism of the West’s motives and of the government in Kyiv — is not enough to allay the fears of many over a new war with Russia.
“There’s normal people over there,” Serhiy Pashchenko, 62, trimming pink-flowering peach trees, said of Russia, recalling that he was working on a construction project in Moscow when the conflict broke out in 2014. “But there’s a government over there that does not recognize us as a people.”
In Crimea, after a major drought last year, the water shortage has become so dire that Russian officials have started to evoke the specter of mass death — though warnings of humanitarian catastrophe are contradicted by Russian officials’ assurances that even tourists to Crimea will not go thirsty.
Blocking the canal, a senior official in the de facto Russian government controlling Crimea said in February, represented “an attempt to destroy us as a people, an attempt at mass murder and genocide.” Moscow has pledged to spend $670 million to address the water shortage, but this year reservoirs have been running dry and water is being rationed.
Ukrainian officials are unmoved. Under the Geneva Convention, they say, it is Russia’s responsibility as an occupying power to provide water, and they add that sufficient underground aquifers exist to provide for the population. The Kremlin says that Crimea willfully joined Russia in 2014, aided by Russian troops, after the pro-Western revolution in Kyiv nearly every government in the world still considers Crimea to be part of Ukraine.
“No water for Crimea until de-occupation,” said Anton Korynevych, the representative for Crimea of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, spelling out government policy. “Period.”
Mr. Zelensky checked Ukrainian troops’ readiness in a visit to the trenches at the Crimean border last month. Even though Russian troops are withdrawing, he warned, Ukraine must be prepared for them to return at “any moment.” In Washington, senior American officials believe that an incursion to secure the water supply remains a real threat, though the costs and difficulty of such a move appear to have been sufficient to dissuade Russia for now.
About 10,000 young people from across the Soviet Union helped build the canal, a marvel of engineering that drops about an inch in elevation every mile for the first 129 miles so that gravity keeps the water flowing. Sappers and archaeologists led the way, said the canal’s resident historian, Volodymyr Sklyarov they cleared World War II ordnance and the occasional trove of ancient Scythian treasure.
The canal even has its own anthem, still framed on the wall of the canal’s headquarters. “We built the canal in peace, along with the whole great and powerful country,” the words go. “Keep it, as dear as your breath, for your children and grandchildren!”
But when Russia seized Crimea in 2014, a senior aide in the Ukrainian president’s office, Andriy Senchenko, organized the damming of the canal as a way to strike back. Before the canal’s annual springtime opening, he directed workers to pile up a pyramid of bags of sand and clay near the border with Crimea. And he had them put up a sign saying they were installing a flow-measurement mechanism, to put Russian intelligence on the wrong track.
He is convinced that blocking the canal was the right decision because it imposed costs on Moscow, much as military resistance would have.
“In order to cause as much damage to the Russian Federation as was caused by seven years of blocking the canal, tens of thousands would need to have died at the front,” Mr. Senchenko said.
The temporary dam is still what holds back the water about 10 miles upstream from the Crimean border. Ukraine is building a more permanent dam right at the border with hatches that could allow the water flow to be restored if the government decided to do so, said the canal’s head, Serhiy Shevchenko. But those hatches are not yet operational, making it physically impossible for now to resume water delivery to Crimea, Mr. Shevchenko said.
The canal is a divisive issue on the ground, where some residents are influenced by what they see on Russian television.
Natalia Lada, a 58-year-old cafeteria director in the Black Sea beachside town of Khorly near Crimea, says she watches Russian television, even though it is “only propaganda against us,” because she finds it most convenient to receive. She says she has learned that Russia seems “ready for war, ready to conquer us,” perhaps just to win control of the nearby canal.
“If the question becomes, ‘It’s either water or peace,’ then peace is of course better,” Ms. Lada said. “Let’s give them water — why do we need war?”
Ukrainian officials say the reach of Russian television, particularly in the country’s border regions, is a security risk that has gone insufficiently addressed in seven years of war.
They say Russia has been erecting ever more powerful television transmitters in Crimea and separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine that direct signals into government-controlled Ukraine. Kyiv has been trying to counter that by erecting its own new transmitters, but the Russian signals are more powerful, officials acknowledge — a losing game of Whac-a-Mole on the airwaves.
“Filling all these holes is very hard, because their resources are greater,” said Serhiy Movchan, an official overseeing radio and television broadcasting in the regional capital of Kherson.
To hear Russian officials tell it, Ukraine’s leaders since 2014 have forced Russian speakers in the country to “renounce their identity or to face violence or death.” The reality is different in Kherson, where many residents still value some common bonds with Russia, including language — but want no part of a further military intervention by Mr. Putin.
A hill outside the city of Kakhovka, near the canal’s beginning, bears another reminder of historical ties to Russia: a towering Soviet monument of Communist revolutionaries with a horse-drawn machine gun, marking the fierce battles here in the Russian Civil War a century ago. Kyiv in 2019 demanded that the monument be taken down, calling it an “insult to the memory of the millions of victims of the Communist totalitarian regime.” The city refused, and the monument still stands, overlooking rusty, dismantled lampposts.
Tending her mother’s grave at an adjoining cemetery, Ms. Lomonosova, a gardener, and her father, Mikhail Lomonosov, 64, said they did not want the monument torn down.
They spoke Russian, described themselves as “little Russians,” and said they occasionally watched Russian television. But if Russian troops were to invade, Ms. Lomonosova was ready to flee, and Mr. Lomonosov was ready to fight against them.
“We may have a Russian last name, but we are proud to be Ukrainian,” Ms. Lomonosova said. “Everyone has their own territory, though all have a shared past.”
Why Ukraine Is So Important to Putin
Putin's standoff over Ukraine boosted his popularity rating in Russia to 80%. To maintain this popularity, he will continue to hold onto Ukraine despite the cost. Putin knows that NATO won't protect Ukraine since it is not a member, and that encourages him to continue to attack.
Ukraine, which provided the Soviet agricultural output, had been an important contributor to the former Soviet Union's economy. It also supplied heavy industrial equipment and raw materials to industrial sites throughout the former USSR.
Where Is Crimea?
Crimea is a peninsula in eastern Europe, located in the Black Sea. It is connected to Ukraine by a small strip of land in the north. The eastern shore of Crimea has a finger that almost touches Russia, and a goal of Russia is to build a bridge across the strait to connect itself to the land.
Recently, Russia has exerted their sovereignty over Crimea. While some other UN member states recognize Crimea as part of Russia, Ukraine also continues to claim the land as an integral part of the country. Most governments support Ukraine’s claim, as does the non-binding United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262.
Crimea on a map.
4 Reasons Putin Is Already Losing in Ukraine
E ven a week ago, the idea of a Russian military intervention in Ukraine seemed farfetched if not totally alarmist. The risks involved were just too enormous for President Vladimir Putin and for the country he has ruled for 14 years. But the arrival of Russian troops in Crimea over the weekend has shown that he is not averse to reckless adventures, even ones that offer little gain. In the coming days and weeks, Putin will have to decide how far he is prepared to take this intervention and how much he is prepared to suffer for it. It is already clear, however, that he cannot emerge as the winner of this conflict, at least not when the damage is weighed against the gains. It will at best be a Pyrrhic victory, and at worst an utter catastrophe. Here’s why:
At home, this intervention looks to be the one of the most unpopular decisions Putin has ever made. The Kremlin’s own pollster released a survey on Monday that showed 73% of Russians reject it. In phrasing its question to 1600 respondents across the country, the state-funded sociologists at WCIOM were clearly trying to get as much support for the intervention as possible: &ldquoShould Russia react to the overthrow of the legally elected authorities in Ukraine?&rdquo they asked. Only 15% said yes &ndash hardly a national consensus.
That seems astounding in light of all the brainwashing Russians have faced on the issue of Ukraine. For weeks, the Kremlin’s effective monopoly on television news has been sounding the alarm over Ukraine. Its revolution, they claimed, is the result of an American alliance with Nazis intended to weaken Russia. And still, nearly three quarters of the population oppose a Russian &ldquoreaction&rdquo of any kind, let alone a Russian military occupation like they are now watching unfold in Crimea. The 2008 invasion of Georgia had much broader support, because Georgia is not Ukraine. Ukraine is a nation of Slavs with deep cultural and historical ties to Russia. Most Russians have at least some family or friends living in Ukraine, and the idea of a fratricidal war between the two largest Slavic nations in the world evokes a kind of horror that no Kremlin whitewash can calm.
Indeed, Monday’s survey suggests that the influence of Putin’s television channels is breaking down. The blatant misinformation and demagoguery on Russian television coverage of Ukraine seems to have pushed Russians to go online for their information. And as for those who still have no Internet connection, they could simply have picked up the phone and called their panicked friends and relatives in Ukraine.
So what about Russia’s nationalists? The war-drum thumping Liberal Democratic party, a right-wing puppet of the Kremlin, has been screaming for Russia to send in the tanks. On Feb. 28, as troops began appearing on the streets of Crimea, the leader of that party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was on the scene handing out wads of cash to a cheering crowd of locals in the city of Sevastopol, home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. &ldquoGive it to the women, the old maids, the pregnant, the lonely, the divorced,” he told the crowd from atop a chair. “Russia is rich. We’ll give everybody everything.” But in Monday’s survey, 82% of his party’s loyalists rejected any such generosity. Even the adherents of the Communist Party, who tend to feel entitled to all of Russia’s former Soviet domains, said with a broad majority &ndash 62% &ndash that Russia should not jump into Ukraine’s internal crisis.
That does not necessarily mean Putin will face an uprising at home. So far, the anti-war protests in Moscow have looked almost pathetically temperate. But sociologists have been saying for years that Putin’s core electorate is dwindling. What underpins his popularity &ndash roughly 60% approved of his rule before this crisis started &ndash is a total lack of viable alternatives to Putin’s rule. But this decision is sure to eat away at the passive mass of his supporters, especially in Russia’s biggest cities.
In Monday’s survey, 30% of respondents from Moscow and St. Petersburg said that Russia could see massive political protests of the kind that overthrew the Ukrainian government last month. Putin’s only means of forestalling that kind of unrest is to crack down hard and early. So on Feb. 28, Russia’s most prominent opposition activist Alexei Navalny was put under house arrest less than six months after he won 30% of the vote in the Moscow mayoral race. Expect more of the same if the opposition to Putin’s intervention starts to find its voice.
The economic impact on Russia is already staggering. When markets opened on Monday morning, investors got their first chance to react to the Russian intervention in Ukraine over the weekend, and as a result, the key Russian stock indexes tanked by more than 10%. That amounts to almost $60 billion in stock value wiped out in the course of a day, more than Russia spent preparing for last month’s Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. The state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom, which accounts for roughly a quarter of Russian tax revenues, lost $15 billion in market value in one day &ndash incidentally the same amount of money Russia promised to the teetering regime in Ukraine in December and then revoked in January as the revolution took hold.
The value of the Russian currency meanwhile dropped against the dollar to its lowest point on record, and the Russian central bank spent $10 billion on the foreign exchange markets trying to prop it up. &ldquoThis has to fundamentally change the way investors and ratings agencies view Russia,&rdquo said Timothy Ash, head of emerging market research at Standard Bank. At a time when Russia’s economic growth was already stagnating, &ldquoThis latest military adventure will increase capital flight, weaken Russian asset prices, slow investment and economic activity and growth. Western financial sanctions on Russia will hurt further,&rdquo Ash told the Wall Street Journal.
Even Russia’s closest allies want no part of this. The oil-rich state of Kazakhstan, the most important member of every regional alliance Russia has going in the former Soviet space, put out a damning statement on Monday, marking the first time its leaders have ever turned against Russia on such a major strategic issue: &ldquoKazakhstan expresses deep concern over the developments in Ukraine,&rdquo the Foreign Ministry said. &ldquoKazakhstan calls on all sides to stop the use of force in the resolution of this situation.&rdquo
What likely worries Russia’s neighbors most is the statement the Kremlin made on March 2, after Putin spoke on the phone with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. &ldquoVladimir Putin noted that in case of any escalation of violence against the Russian-speaking population of the eastern regions of Ukraine and Crimea, Russia would not be able to stay away and would resort to whatever measures are necessary in compliance with international law.&rdquo This sets a horrifying precedent for all of Russia’s neighbors.
Every single state in the former Soviet Union, from Central Asia to the Baltics, has a large Russian-speaking population, and this statement means that Russia reserves the right to invade when it feels that population is threatened. The natural reaction of any Russian ally in the region would be to seek security guarantees against becoming the next Ukraine. For countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, including Armenia, a stanch Russian ally, that would likely stir desires for a closer alliance with NATO and the European Union. For the countries of Central Asia, Russia’s traditional stomping ground on the geopolitical map of the world, that would mean strengthening ties with nearby China, including military ones.
China, which has long been Russia’s silent partner on all issues of global security from Syria to Iran, has also issued cautious statements regarding Russia’s actions in Ukraine. &ldquoIt is China&rsquos long-standing position not to interfere in others&rsquo internal affairs,&rdquo the Foreign Ministry reportedly said in a statement on Sunday. &ldquoWe respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.&rdquo
So in the course of one weekend, Putin has spooked all of the countries he wanted to include in his grand Eurasian Union, the bloc of nations he hoped would make Russia a regional power again. The only gung-ho participants in that alliance so far have been Kazakhstan (see above) and Belarus, which is known as Europe’s last dictatorship. Its leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has so far remained silent on the Russian intervention in Ukraine. But last week, Belarus recognized the legitimacy of the new revolutionary government in Kiev, marking a major break from Russia, which has condemned Ukraine’s new leaders as extremists and radicals. The Belarusian ambassador in Kiev even congratulated Ukraine’s new Foreign Minister on taking office and said he looks forward to working with him.
As for the impoverished nation of Armenia, a late-comer to Russia’s fledgling Eurasian alliance, it has also recognized the new government in Kiev while stopping short of any official condemnation of Putin’s intervention in Ukraine so far. But on Saturday, prominent politicians led an anti-Putin demonstration in the Armenia capital. &ldquoWe are not against Russia,&rdquo said the country’s former Minister of National Security David Shakhnazaryan. &ldquoWe are against the imperial policies of Putin and the Kremlin.&rdquo
Russia’s isolation from the West will deepen dramatically. In June, Putin was planning to welcome the leaders of the G8, a club of western powers (plus Japan), in the Russian resort city of Sochi. But on Sunday, all of them announced they had halted their preparations for attending the summit in protest at Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. So much for Putin’s hard-fought seat at the table with the leaders of the western world.
In recent years, one of Russia’s greatest points of contention with the West has been over NATO’s plans to build of a missile shield in Europe. Russia has seen this as a major threat to its security, as the shield could wipe out Russia’s ability to launch nuclear missiles at the West. The long-standing nuclear deterrent that has protected Russia from Western attacks for generations &ndash the Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction, or MAD &ndash could thus be negated, Russia’s generals have warned. But after Russia decided to unilaterally invade its neighbor to the west this weekend, any remaining resistance to the missile shield project would be pushed aside by the renewed security concerns of various NATO members, primarily those in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Whatever hopes Russia had of forestalling the construction of the missile shield through diplomacy are now most likely lost.
No less worrying for Putin would be the economic sanctions the West is preparing in answer to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Depending on their intensity, those could cut off the ability of Russian companies and businessmen in getting western loans and trading with most of the world’s largest economies. Putin’s allies could also find it a lot more difficult to send their children to study in the West or to keep their assets in Western banks, as they now almost universally do. All of that raises the risk for Putin of a split in his inner circle and, potentially, even of a palace coup. There is hardly anything more important to Russia’s political elite than the security of their foreign assets, certainly not their loyalty to a leader who seems willing to put all of that at risk.
And what about the upside for Putin? There doesn’t seem to be much of it, at least not compared to the damage he stands to inflict on Russia and himself. But he does look set to accomplish a few things. For one, he demonstrates to the world that his red lines, unlike those of the White House, cannot be crossed.
If Ukraine’s revolutionary government moves ahead with their planned integration into the E.U. and possibly NATO, the military alliance that Russia sees as its main strategic threat would move right up to Russia’s western borders and, in Crimea, it would surround the Russian Black Sea fleet. That is a major red line for Putin and his generals.
By sending troops into Crimea and, potentially, into eastern Ukraine, Russia could secure a buffer around Russia’s strategic naval fleet and at its western border. For the military brass in Moscow, those are vital priorities, and their achievement is worth a great deal of sacrifice. Over the weekend, Putin’s actions showed that he is listening carefully to his generals. At the same time, he seems to be ignoring the outrage coming from pretty much everyone else.