WASHINGTON, March 3, 2014 — Russia’s Ukraine gambit has already succeeded, undercutting the new government and reminding the country of repercussions of moving closer to the EU.
Last weekend, Putin received unanimous approval from Parliament to send troops into Crimea to “defend Russian speakers.” Heavily armed Russian-speaking soldiers and tanks promptly arrived in the region, blocking military bases and patrolling the streets. At the same time, Russia held “military exercises” on the border with Ukraine to flex its military muscle.
The Prime Minister of Crimea announced that he had asked for Russia’s help in protecting the population. However, the Prime Minister in Kiev, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, reiterated that Crimea is part of Ukraine and that the Crimean prime minister had taken office illegally.
Meanwhile, the EU, the United States and Canada responded to the Russian military mobilization by suspending preparation for a June G8 Summit in the Russian city of Sochi and threatening additional reprisals.
The most likely response from the EU and the United States will be economic sanctions. Strong, swift economic sanctions by the EU and the U.S. would be biting for Russia, which has become far more integrated into the global economy than during previous decades.
At this point, however, any action by the international community is too late. Even if Russia retreats from Crimea, Putin has already won.
In eastern Ukraine, pro-Russian protests are starting to sprout.
Protesters in Donetsk seized the regional government building today, which has been flying the Russian flag for three days. Protest leaders in the city are demanding that the government in Kiev stepped down and that a pro-Russian governor take over the city. Donetsk says it will hold a referendum on whether to remain in Ukraine on March 30.
In Kharkiv, pro-Russian protesters also took over the regional government building.
While protesters in eastern Ukraine say they do not support ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, they are also dismayed by the new government in Kiev. One young protester in eastern Ukraine posted on Facebook yesterday, “The new government is worse than the old. We need stability and leadership.”
The situation is reminiscent of the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution in the country. Reformers held massive demonstrations against electoral fraud by Yanukovych, ultimately succeeding in overturning his win. However, Yanukovych then won re-election in 2010, partially due to disillusion by the public with the reformers.
Discontent with the new government appears to be festering. The country is teetering on economic collapse, staying afloat only through financial bailouts from the international community. Protests continue throughout the country, with increasing violence and instability.
The turbulence is taking its toll on the new government. Citizens see Kiev as weak, unable to counter Russian influence or hold the country together. If Russia cuts off natural gas supplies to the country, it will likely deal the death blow to the new government.
While Yanukovych is unlikely to return to power, it will be extremely difficult for the government of unity to remain.
Putin has again trumped the West. Even if Russia does not extend its intervention into eastern Ukraine, Putin almost certainly will achieve his objective in maintaining Ukraine in the Russian orbit.