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

Putin's Biggest Mistake

The Real Stakes of Intervening In Ukraine

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.

At this point, it is too soon to call events in Crimea anything other than a domestically led coup with Russian support. But that could change. If Russian President Vladimir Putin now takes the opportunity to launch a full-scale Russian invasion, which his handpicked upper house of parliament authorized him to do by unanimous vote today, he risks unleashing hell. He will face a furious Crimean Tatar minority group, which has already started forming its own self-defense forces. He will risk provoking battle with the relatively strong Ukrainian military, as armed ethnic Ukrainian militias pour into Crimea from the rest of the country. He might also unleash violence between ethnic Russians and ethnic Ukrainians throughout the country, with demands from ethnic Russians for further Russian involvement in what will by then be a Ukrainian civil war.

Predicting human behavior is always a matter of probabilities. Up until now, Putin has consistently shown shrewd political judgment -- but that doesn't mean he always will. State leaders can make terrible errors, and Putin may be on the verge of making the worst mistake of his career by waltzing across the Ukrainian border. 

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