On Saturday, Russia invaded and effectively annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula in the Black Sea. In doing so, Russian President Vladimir Putin shrewdly took advantage of the political uncertainty that arose when Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s former kleptocratic president, took flight last week and was swiftly replaced by a hastily formed provisional government in Kiev. Russia might justify its behavior by speaking of a need to protect ethnic Russians but, in reality, the move was a thinly veiled attempt to forward Putin’s real agenda: re-establishing Russia as a resurrected great power.
The official Russian explanation for flooding Crimea with troops, who, dressed in uniforms without insignia, first showed up to “guard” two airports in Crimea and then the Crimean regional legislature, was that Russia was concerned about the treatment of the ethnic Russian minority within Ukraine, particularly in Crimea. The thin pretext was a law that Ukraine’s provisional parliament speedily passed after Yanukovych’s departure that downgraded the status of the Russian language relative to the Ukrainian language.
As U.S. President Barack Obama evidently mentioned during the 90-minute phone conversation he had with Putin after Russian troops first invaded Crimea, the Russian minority hardly constituted a reason to invade. After all, in 2008, when Putin sent forces to Georgia, another neighboring former Soviet state, he at least waited until a few houses were burned down in the ethnic Russian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At that point, he dispatched thousands of troops to “liberate” the persecuted Russian minority and, incidentally, establish Russian sovereignty and a lasting military presence in the regions.
In Crimea, however, tensions had not escalated beyond some pushing and shoving between ethnic Russians on the one side and ethnic Ukrainians and indigenous Crimean Tatars on the other. And the only people hurt in these skirmishes were ethnic Ukrainians. It makes little sense for Russia to squander the international goodwill it generated from the unexpectedly successful Sochi Olympics for a few million Russians living in Ukraine (