The fall of the Ukrainian government and its replacement with one that appears to be oriented toward the West represents a major defeat for the Russian Federation. What started the current trajectory, some will remember, and a crucial variable in the breakup of the USSR in the fall of 1991, was the fact that Ukraine voted overwhelmingly (92.3%) for independence in a referendum on 1 December. On 8 December, Leonid Kravchuk, the newly elected President of independent Ukraine signed the Belavezh Accords (a document that later went missing) with Boris Yeltsin for Russia and Stanislau Shushkevich for Belarus, thus dissolving the Soviet Union.
This was then followed by the Orange Revolution of 2004 and a number of “color revolution”-style uprisings. In 2005 then, the Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and Polish Prime Minister Marek Belka agreed March 4 on a project to extend Ukraine's Odessa-Brody oil pipeline to Plock, Poland. Extending this pipeline allowed Poland to diversify its oil supply, making it significantly less dependent on Russian oil.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union thus, it appears that Russia accepted the reality that the former Eastern European satellite states would be absorbed into the Western economic and political systems. Moscow claims to have been assured however that former Soviet republics would be left as a neutral buffer zone and not absorbed. Washington and others have disputed that this was promised. In any case, it was rendered meaningless when the Baltic States were admitted to NATO and the European Union. The result was that NATO, which had been almost 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) from St. Petersburg, was now less than approximately 160 kilometers away.
This left Belarus and Ukraine as buffers. Ukraine is about 480 kilometers from Moscow at its closest point. Were Belarus and Ukraine both admitted to NATO, the city of Smolensk, which had been deep inside the Soviet Union, would have become a border town. Russia has historically protected itself with its depth. It moved its borders as far west as possible, and that depth deterred adventurers -- or, as it did with Hitler and Napoleon, destroyed them. The loss of Ukraine as a buffer to the West leaves Russia without that depth and hostage to the intentions and capabilities of Europe and the United States.
There are those in the West who dismiss Russia's fears as archaic. No one wishes to invade Russia, and no one can invade Russia. Such views appear sophisticated but are in fact simplistic. Intent means relatively little in terms of assessing threats. They can change very fast. So too can capabilities. The American performance in World War I and the German performance in the 1930s show how quickly threats and capabilities shift. In 1932, Germany was a shambles economically and militarily. By 1938, it was the dominant economic and military power on the European Peninsula. In 1941, it was at the gates of Moscow. In 1916, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson ran a sincere anti-war campaign in a country with hardly any army. In 1917, he deployed more than a million American soldiers to Europe.
Russia's viewpoint is appropriately pessimistic. If Russia loses Belarus or Ukraine, it loses its strategic depth, which accounts for much of its ability to defend the Russian heartland. If the intention of the West is not hostile, then why is it so eager to see the regime in Ukraine transformed? It may be a profound love of liberal democracy, but from Moscow's perspective, Russia must assume more sinister motives.
Quite apart from the question of invasion, which is obviously a distant one, Russia is concerned about the consequences of Ukraine's joining the West and the potential for contagion in parts of Russia itself. During the 1990s, there were several secessionist movements in Russia. The Chechens became violent, and the rest of their secession story is well known. But there also was talk of secession in Karelia, in Russia's northwest, and in the Pacific Maritime region.
What was conceivable under Boris Yeltsin was made inconceivable under Vladimir Putin. The strategy Putin adopted was to increase Russia's strength moderately but systematically, to make that modest increase appear disproportionately large. Russia could not afford to remain on the defensive; the forces around it were too powerful. Putin had to magnify Russia's strength, and he did. Using energy exports, the weakness of Europe and the United States' distraction in the Middle East, he created a sense of growing Russian power. Putin ended talk of secession in the Russian Federation. He worked to create regimes in Belarus and Ukraine that retained a great deal of domestic autonomy but operated within a foreign policy framework acceptable to Russia. Moscow went further, projecting its power into the Middle East and, in the Syrian civil war, appearing to force the United States to back out of its strategy.
It is not clear what happened in Kiev. There were of course many organizations funded by American and European money that were committed to a reform government. It is irrelevant whether, as the Russians charge, these organizations planned and fomented the uprising against former President Viktor Yanukovich's regime or whether that uprising was part of a more powerful indigenous movement that drew these groups along. The fact was that Yanukovich refused to sign an agreement moving Ukraine closer to the European Union, the demonstrations took place, there was violence, and an openly pro-Western Ukrainian government was put in place.
The Russians cannot simply allow this to stand. Not only does it create a new geopolitical reality, but in the longer term it also gives the appearance inside Russia that Putin is weaker than he seems and opens the door to instability and even fragmentation. Therefore, the Russians must respond. The issue is how.
And while there are reports of an imminent Russian invasion, the fact is that Russia already has troops on the ground in Crimea, given that they have leased a major military base in Sevastopol.
The port of Sevastopol serves as the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, which oversees maritime operations throughout the Mediterranean. The base is leased through 2042, and the Russian fleet stationed there consists of 380 ships, 170 aircraft, and 25,000 troops. Crimea and Sevastopol in Ukraine represent a powerful means to exert pressure against Russia considering the fact that Moscow views the region as an indispensable strategic asset. In view of the street protests that have brought Ukrainian nationalists into power (not necessarily many ‘democrats’ here), and fearing a similar action on the part of the same political party in Crimea, Russia’s President Putin ordered a general mobilization of the western military region under the guise of ‘emergency exercises’ along with two districts of the central military region. This move masked a de facto preparation for some 2,000 troops to enter Crimea along with a squadron of helicopters.
These steps give Russia a rapid response capability in the event that some battalions of the Ukrainian armed forces attempt to reach Crimea – they are also deploying air defense systems already in place at the base.
The arrival and deployment (even partial) of Russian troops has not been followed by shoot-outs with police departments in Crimea, nor has the new government in Kiev issued any orders to its armed forces, which continue to maintain a ‘passive’ attitude. Russia now has effective control of Simferopol, the naval base of Sevastopol, and Balaklava - every airport on the Crimean peninsula. Russian military units also surround regional support facilities for the Ukrainian armed forces, as well as an important air defense base north of Sevastopol.
How will the situation evolve?
Russian troops will continue to flow into Crimea, and Russian helicopters could be deployed in order to further discourage a response from the Ukrainian army – which remains highly unlikely, in fact, even if Russia made a complete bid to take over Crimea, there is little chance of a Ukrainian military response. Effectively, the Crimean peninsula is already being controlled by the Russian Federation and Putin’s recent moves are merely designed to protect or consolidate that control. Russia’s armed forces can be deployed so quickly and in such numbers that it will be impossible for the Ukrainian army to oppose.
In the unlikely event of a Ukrainian response, the much better equipped Russian troops would extend their reach and gain control of eastern Ukraine’s most important industrial and mining districts, replicating in a sense, though on a smaller scale, what happened in Georgia in 2008. For now we can say with relative certainty that the Russian Federation after sixty years – when a possibly drunken Khrushchev ‘donated’ it to Ukraine – has taken full control of the Crimean peninsula, and it will do whatever is necessary to keep it.
The Russians are convinced that the uprising in Kiev was fomented by Western intelligence services supporting nongovernmental organizations and that without this, the demonstrations would have died out and the government would have survived. This is not a new narrative on the Russians' part. They also claimed that the above mentioned Orange Revolution had the same roots. The West denies this. What is important is that the Russians believe this. That means that they believe that Western intelligence has the ability to destabilize Ukraine and potentially other countries in the Russian sphere of influence, or even Russia itself. This makes the Russians wary of U.S. power.
The United States, in turn, sees the Russians as having two levers. Militarily, the Russians are stronger than the Americans in their region. The United States had no practical military options in Crimea, just as they had none in Georgia in 2008. The United States would take months to build up forces in the event of a major conflict in Eurasia. Preparation for Desert Storm took six months, and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 took similar preparation. With such a time frame the Russians would have achieved their aims and the only option the Americans would have would be an impossible one: mounting an invasion of Russian-held territory. The Americans do not want the Russians to exercise military options, because it would reveal the U.S. inability to mount a timely response. It would also reveal weaknesses in NATO.