Putin Uses the Ukrainian Revolution to Try to Reinstate Crimea

Armed Russian navy servicemen surround a Ukrainian border guard base in Balaclava, in the Crimea. Baz Ratne/Reuters

In the summer of 1994, just three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jack F. Matlock, who as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991 had been present at its destruction, flew to Kiev for a meeting with high level Ukrainian leaders then presiding over the country’s shaky transition to independence.

“They described for us,” Matlock later wrote, “public opinion surveys that showed a dangerous polarization of political attitudes. They felt the growing disaffection of Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions.

“The most acute regional problem was Crimea. Russians made up two thirds of the population, and it had been considered part of Russia for most of the past 200 years.”   

The Russians, his hosts told Matlock then, “looked at Ukrainians as wayward relatives rather than as neighbors of equal status.”

It is becoming ever more apparent that President Vladimir Putin of Russia—a man who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical “disaster” of the 20th century—is intent on calling the wayward relatives “home.”

Today in Crimea—at the south-eastern tip of the country, given to Ukraine by Nikita Krushchev in 1954 and still home to Russia’s Black Sea Naval base—unidentified armed men seized control of the two major regional airports. In Moscow, a spokesman for Putin told a New York Times reporter, “We’re not interfering. We’re standing on this position.”

Few in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, believed that. "An armed invasion and occupation", the country’s new Interior Minister called it. And nor should anyone else believe it.

The notion that Russia under Putin would stand idly by as Ukraine slips through his grasp—as it seemed to be doing when the pro-Moscow President, Viktor Yanukovych, was deposed by protesters last weekend—is ludicrous. Now becoming apparent is just how audacious Putin is willing to be to maintain Moscow’s interests in its large western neighbor, and to keep it from firmly attaching itself to the West.

By seizing control of Crimea (the soldiers now controlling the two airports are likely from Russian Spetnaz or special forces units) is Putin laying down a critical marker, one never even approached since the dissolution of the old Soviet empire in 1991? And how significant a marker?

Consider that at the end of 1994, the city council in Sevastopol, home to Russia’s vast naval base, declared the city once again part of Russia. The Russian government rejected that move, as did the Crimean government in the regional capital of Simferopol.

Boris Yeltsin was running Russia then. He did not view the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “disaster,” unlike Putin, the man he appointed Prime Minister in 1999 and who succeeded him on the first day of the new millennium. Yeltsin presided over its collapse.   2.28_Airport Ukraine's new leadership described the troops as an invasion and occupation by Moscow's forces Baz Ratner/Reuters

In the summer of 2008, Putin made it clear who he is and what he wants when he poured troops into the former Soviet state of Georgia, ostensibly in support of pro-Russian separatists in two nearby breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union the names of these obscure places—Sevastopol, Abkhazia, South Ossetia—have no resonance in the West. They’re far away and hard to pronounce and, let s face it, with the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction off the table, who really cares, anyway?

It was obvious then, in 2008, who cared-- and with a handful of pro-Russian forces now in control of Crimea’s airport, it’s obvious again now. Less forgivable than the public’s lack of interest is that the leaders of the West seem to be shocked every time Putin reminds them that those places indeed matter in the mind of an old Cold Warrior eager to reverse history to the extent he can.

After Yanukovych was deposed last weekend, a moment when it appeared that Russia might be  “losing” Ukraine, both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry stated that they weren’t playing “on a Cold War era chessboard.”  

A think tank analyst, Heather Conley at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, provided a reality check. “While this may not be a Cold War chessboard, let us be very clear on what it is: lines and spheres of influence that have been drawn in this region for quite some time. And these lines have (now) dramatically hardened.

“President Obama and many in Europe may not wish to see it this way, but this new division in Europe has consequences for American and European national interests and we need a new and sustained transatlantic policy to fully address them.”

Obama and the EU may not wish to see it this way, but it should now be dawning on them that their counterpart in Moscow does see it this way. As the West now (presumably) scrambles to come up with that “sustained transatlantic policy,” the question is: What else will Russia’s President do to secure Moscow’s interests in Ukraine?

He s got plenty of options that fall well short of ratcheting up militarily-- though Kiev, without any significant military alliances, is deeply vulnerable to an assault from Moscow. As the EU and the U.S. piece together an economic aid package—seeking the help of the International Monetary Fund in doing so—Putin could increase his cash on the barrelhead offer of $15 billion in immediate aid, proffered last November to persuade Yanukovych to spurn an EU trade deal. (Remember, this is the guy who just spent $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics. To him, buying off Ukraine is chump change.)

At the same time, Putin has got lots of sticks he can deploy to unsettle the new government in Kiev and make it think twice about embracing the West. He controls the flow of natural gas into Ukraine and it’s going to be cold there for at least two more months. He can block both Ukrainian agricultural and manufacturing exports to Russia, its biggest market. (Health officials in Moscow earlier this week reportedly began questioning the safety of Ukrainian food exports.)

Moreover, for reasons that seem not to have dawned on the chattering classes in Washington or Europe, getting the IMF to play a significant role in providing funds to a sinking Ukrainian economy may not be as easy as it sounds. Remember that China, the world’s second largest economy, has asked for, and ostensibly received, a bigger say in matters there.

Now recall what just happened in Ukraine: demonstrators occupied the country’s central square for days. The government eventually starts shooting. (Think this Tiananmen Square-like scenario has any resonance in Beijing?) Only this time the government falls, the demonstrators appear to be winning and the new government sends out a search party to arrest the fleeing former President.  

Anyone believe Beijing would be eager to reward a country, via IMF funds, for that? Suffice to say, at minimum it’s conceivable that Moscow and Beijing could together try to slow walk any IMF assistance to Kiev.

So yes, well short of a significant military incursion, Putin’s got options galore.

The departure of Viktor Yanukovych from the Ukrainian capital last weekend was not the endgame of this crisis.

For the man sitting in the Kremlin, it may have been just the beginning.