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
All rights reserved. To request permission to distribute or reprint this article, please visit ForeignAffairs.com/Permissions.