When Barack Obama warned Vladimir Putin that “there will be costs” for violating Ukrainian sovereignty, I doubt the Kremlin worried too much. The Syria crisis taught is all about Obama and his ‘red lines’. This is a president who recoils at the idea of any new entanglement, whose attention is on the Pacific rather than Eurasia and is less worried than any of his recent predecessors about Russian aggression.
And that’s what makes this situation so dangerous: Putin wants to know where the new red lines lie, and may keep pushing until he finds out. His asking Russia’s parliament for the authority to use troops is, I suspect, is a ploy to see how Washington reacts. If this Crimean crisis further exposes Obama as irresolute and distracted, it will suit Putin perfectly. His aim is to show that Obama’s words cannot be taken seriously – something that will further erode America’s standing in the world and drain its soft power. This will embolden dictators and make the world a more dangerous place.
Putin is trying that ancient trick: offering ‘assistance’ to Russian-speaking people, the card played in Moldova’s Transnistria in 1992 (and the pretext that Turkey used to invade northern Cyprus in 1974). Ukraine is hardly likely to cede Crimea to Russia to assuage Putin – that tactic didn’t work for the Czechs with the Sudetenland in 1938. And plenty living in Ukraine draw precisely these analogies: the word ‘Nazi’ is used being liberally.
In fact, some in the West make these analogies too. Here’s Walter Russel Mead in The American Interest:
‘One can already hear a chorus of people discussing Russia’s Crimean move in the terms people used to describe Hitler’s move into the Rhineland. The Germans are only going into their own back garden, said Britain’s Lord Lothian. George Bernard Shaw told the public that it was like the British moving into Portsmouth. Crimea is historically and culturally more a part of Russia than anything else, we are told. It’s a long way from the United States and what happens there doesn’t really matter very much.’
It’s true that Crimea is different to the rest of Ukraine. It was Russian until Khrushchev oddly gifted it to Ukraine in 1954 in the name of ‘Soviet friendship’. Russian speakers have been in the majority ever since Stalin ethnically cleansed the Tartars in 1944; Russian is the de facto official language today in the Crimea.
But partitioning Ukraine, in some kind of Czechoslovakia-style velvet divorce, is not plausible. There’d be too many minorities on either side of any new dividing line, and this is certainly for Crimea where the remaining Tatars are none to keen to come back under Moscow’s rule.
Putin has very little to gain from invading Ukraine, for reasons that Kimberley Martin outlined recently in Foreign Affairs. He’ll be flexing his muscles, securing the parliamentary authorisation for force that evaded Cameron and Obama over Syria. For reasons that Garry Kasparov outlined in the Spectator, Putin has a strategy of pushing things to the limit, in hope of exposing the West a paper tiger. So for this reason, he can be expected to push the situation in Ukraine a lot further.