The Russians are in Crimea, and they are not going to be leaving anytime soon. All of the sanctions in the world and all of the political jabber coming out of Washington and Brussels aren’t going to change that fact. As it goes, that exact jabber is going to serve to intensify the situation from the perspective of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin is concerned with a singular goal, regaining Russia’s place as a power in the world, and in that he feels (and correctly so) that he is forced to be diametrically opposed to the West. That much is obvious, and that much has been stated by nearly every political observer from Moscow to Washington, however, where the West loses its context, and becomes the outsider-looking-in on Putin is at the very core of what the Russians have done in respect to Ukraine and what they plan on doing next.
Firstly, you have to remember how Putin sees the Soviet Union (and Russian Empire before it) as opposed to the West… In 1991, the disintegration of the Soviet Union signaled the end of a larger nation, many parts of a whole which had been aligned with Russia in one form of another since the 19th century or earlier. While the Soviet Republics were ethnically based, it did not alter the fact that they were viewed as integral parts of a unified state. In the Russian mind, it is that unified state that was taken apart in 1991 and Russia, as it exist toady, is more or less a “rump” of what should be a larger state. Though many, if not most of the non-Russian populations in those states relished the opportunity to govern themselves, the idea of the republics, to Russia, was an avenue to maintain an organized influence through governance.
Secondly, and even more importantly, it is what Ukraine means to Russia. The initial Russian society is known as the Kievan Rus, which, as the name implies, was established in the area which is today, the Central Ukraine. To put it in context, Kiev is the Russian’s Plymouth Rock, and it’s as difficult as seeing Massachusetts, or New England as a whole, separated from the rest of United States. For better or worse, Russia and Ukraine share a long, and often sorted, shared history.
Of all the former Soviet republics, Ukraine is the most indispensable to Russian interest. Like Belarus to its north, Ukraine is often considered more or less a Russia-light, even if Ukrainians don’t like it. Its industrial base, massive agricultural potential, combined with its strategic location in Central Europe make losing a friendly Ukraine a daunting prospect for Putin, and to Russia ability to project its power into Europe on political, economic, and military fronts.
In the years since the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, Russia has watched as the NATO alliance has extended its borders eastward and come to Russia’s doorstep. Ukraine and Belarus (with whom Russia shares a deeply engrained alliance) are the last bastions before NATO comes right along its border (although, through the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, it already technically does). Ukraine is, for certain, a red line for Putin, and it was a contentious, but manageable, situation when a friendlier government was in power in Kiev, but the removal of Viktor Yanukovich from power and the pronouncement by the interim government of Ukraine’s “European future,” has changed the board considerably, and in a way Moscow just simply will not accept.
The change of political weather in Ukraine is a direct challenge to Russia’s political heartland, its perceived security, its status as a great nation, and as the center of a sphere of influence which it holds dear. To be certain, Russia’s moves, both present and future, in respect to Ukraine are sure to worry the West, and to an even greater extent, its allies, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, who may fear of increased Russian hegemony in their own regions, but it’s a line Putin is willing to cross again and again.
It’s important to realize that, through it all, the annexation of Crimea was Plan B for Putin. It was not a long, previously thought out, process that he was just looking for a reason to take advantage of. A Ukraine under a hefty and stabilized Russian influence, through such organizations as Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union, was Plan A. When it didn’t happen, Moscow had to change tactics on the fly and the results were never going to be especially palatable to anyone. That includes Russian leadership as well… For all of the hoopla and propaganda surrounding Russia’s newest Federal Subject, Putin knows that he is going to face a far more muddled external relations front from here on out, but to him, it’s worth the risk.