Putin's Biggest Mistake

The Real Stakes of Intervening In Ukraine

A Russian flag (R) is raised next to a Crimean flag on top of the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol, February 27, 2014.
A Russian flag (R) is raised next to a Crimean flag on top of the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol, February 27, 2014. (Baz Ratner / Courtesy Reuters)

My previous article on what Russia was likely to do in Ukraine described the costs of a Russian attempt at territorial aggrandizement. The title and subtitle were picked by the editors; my read on the situation did not give me certainty that Russia wouldn’t invade Crimea, and indeed I argued that an invasion was likely if there was violence against ethnic Russians there (which is why I urged the Ukrainian government not to rise to the bait by permitting or encouraging anti-Russian violence in Crimea).

Yesterday, however, several thousand masked men -- who were widely believed to be private military contractors paid for and transported by Russia -- seized government buildings and airports in Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, and around the Russian naval base in Sevastopol. They did so in support of Sergei Aksyonov, the long-standing leader of Crimea’s Russian Unity Party. The day before, an overwhelming majority in the Crimean parliament had voted him in as the region’s acting prime minister. Soon after, he asked for Russian security support. According to the Ukrainian press, Aksyonov was born in the then-Soviet region of neighboring Moldova, graduated from a Simferopol college in 1993, and has apparently spent most of his life in Crimea.

The process that put Aksyonov in power violated the Ukrainian constitution, since Kiev is supposed to appoint the regional prime minister. But then again, so did the process through which Oleksandr Turchynov became acting president of Ukraine, because, as Daisy Sindelar, a senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has pointed out, former President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster did not follow constitutional protocol. One can argue that the cases are somewhat equivalent: In both, parliamentary majorities supported a new leader.

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