“Russia can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” — George F. Kennan, America’s ambassador to the Soviet Union
Russia is justifying its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula by saying the ethnic Russians who live there are threatened by a nascent fascist regime in Kiev. The habits of Soviet propagandists die hard. What’s really going on here is simple. Vladimir Putin, like most Russian leaders before him, feels he must shove his weight around the “near abroad” to maximize his power and influence in the thin buffer between him and the West. Now that he’s without his vassal—mini-Putin, Viktor Yanukovych, is on the run—Moscow has to do the grunt work itself.
Russia has long been a paranoid land power. It’s huge, mostly flat, and wide open to invasion. Just to name a few examples, it was invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century, Napoleon in the 19th, Nazi Germany in the 20th, and has been recently squeezed by NATO expansion in the former Soviet bloc. These events seared themselves into the Russian psyche. They breathe better with buffer states.
Whether we and the Ukrainians like it or not, Ukraine is still a buffer state within Moscow’s sphere of influence. The US has little more leverage there than Russia has in Canada. And since ethnic Russians outnumber ethnic Ukrainians in the Crimea by more than two-to-one, a Russian invasion of that part of the country is a bit like a French invasion of Quebec—troublesome indeed, and infuriating to the capital, but different from, say, a North Korean invasion of Quebec. That’s why Russia could take it without firing a shot and why nobody shot at the Russians.
Plenty of Crimeans are unhappy about it, of course. A fourth are ethnic Ukrainians, an eighth are Tatars, and one would have to be a truly obnoxious determinist to suggest every Russian on the peninsula is thrilled being occupied by a foreign army just because they speak the same language.
Ukrainians elsewhere in the country (especially outside the ethnically Russian east) are mobilizing for war.
The fact that Crimea has a large Russian population and is pro-Russian politically is no excuse for Putin to lop it off Ukraine. If the reason why is not obvious, ask yourself how you’d feel if the Mexican government seized San Antonio, Texas, and said, hey, it has a Hispanic majority, so it’s ours now. Or if the United States conquered and annexed Toronto and said, hey, we’re all English-speaking North Americans here with a common ancestry, so what’s the big deal?
That's basically what Russia is doing.
And that was Adolf Hitler’s justification for taking the German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in the run-up to World War II. Putin is not Hitler, but he’s pulling the same kind of stunt and expecting to get away with it for exactly the same reason. Nobody wants to blow up the world over this sort of thing.
It’s possible that Russia might take even Kiev if Putin thinks the response to seizing Crimea is sufficiently supine. I doubt it, personally, but I don’t know that he won’t. No one can know that.
He wouldn’t get much out of it, aside from a violent migraine, that he isn’t already getting by invading Crimea. Ukraine can’t fend off a full-blown Russian invasion, but it can make an invasion bloody and expensive. And what would Russians back home think? Ukrainians aren’t their enemies. There is little hatred between these two closely-related peoples.
Bullies drunk on power do reckless and unpredictable things sometimes, though, so the possibility of an all-out invasion—even if the odds are against it—can’t be ruled out.
So now what? The US and NATO are not going to declare war on Russia over Crimea or even Kiev, but that doesn’t mean Putin can just barge in wherever he wants. It goes without saying that the invasion of a European Union or NATO country is over the line and would be resisted with force. Putin surely knows that already. Everybody in Russia knows that.
What Putin does not necessarily know is whether or not the red line is closer to Moscow.
Kiev is almost certainly on Putin’s side of the red line, but no one has actually said that, so it’s ambiguous, as it should be. Ambiguity lends itself to restraint. Russian leaders tend more toward paranoia than American leaders at the best of times. And the expansion of NATO frightened the Russians as much as the expansion of the Warsaw Pact would have alarmed Americans had the Soviets won the Cold War.
So the last thing the West should do is tell Putin where the red line is located exactly. Want to prevent an explosion in far-eastern Europe? Let him think he’s in danger of crossing it now. Otherwise he may sense a green light from the West to swallow whatever he wants on his side of the EU. Let him see a yellow light, at least, if a red light is asking for too much.
There are various ways to signal a yellow if not a red. Retired Admiral James Stavridis shared a few ideas in Foreign Policy magazine. Michael Barone has more. Parking destroyers in the Black Sea off Yalta might be a good place to start. The US sent ships to that region when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. The Russians didn’t withdraw from occupied Abkhazia or South Ossetia, but at least they stopped where they were, withdrew from Gori, and left the capital Tbilisi alone.
It ought to go without saying that it’s not okay for nations to forcibly move other peoples’ borders around because they feel like it, but taking the long view, there may be an upside to all this. Ukraine shorn of its Russian-majority regions would become more pro-European as a matter of simple math. Most of Ukraine’s die-hard pro-Russians won’t participate in Ukrainian elections if they’re no longer part of the Ukrainian polity. And the fools who voted for the pro-Russian Yanukovych solely because the previous government was perceived as corrupt likely won't make that mistake again any time soon, not after getting invaded and dismembered by Vladimir Putin.
Ukraine could end up permanently divvied up in the future, with the Russian regions annexed by Moscow, either formally or de-facto, while the rest of the country, which naturally tilts more to the West, admitted to the European Union and NATO.
That’s a best-case scenario rather than a likely scenario. Ukraine in its current borders, though, surely won’t be admitted to the European Union or NATO, at least not before the Russian Federation liberalizes dramatically, because too many people in its political class are volunteer tools of Moscow.
Russian civilization was born more than a thousand years ago in Kiev in the medieval state of Kievan Rus. If that city ever gives the finger to Moscow once and for all and joins the EU and NATO, that would be something to see. It’s why Russia cares more about Ukraine than the West does and will probably get what it wants.
No one in charge of the fate of that country is asking what the Ukrainians want. They should, but they aren’t and they won’t. Such is the fate of the vassals of Moscow.