The fall of the Ukrainian government and its replacement with one that appears to be oriented toward the West represents a major defeat for the Russian Federation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia accepted the reality that the former Eastern European satellite states would be absorbed into the Western economic and political systems. Moscow claims to have been assured that former Soviet republics would be left as a neutral buffer zone and not absorbed. Washington and others have disputed that this was promised. In any case, it was rendered meaningless when the Baltic states were admitted to NATO and the European Union. The result was that NATO, which had been almost 1,000 miles from St. Petersburg, was now less than approximately 100 miles away.
This left Belarus and Ukraine as buffers. Ukraine is about 300 miles from Moscow at its closest point. Were Belarus and Ukraine both admitted to NATO, the city of Smolensk, which had been deep inside the Soviet Union, would have become a border town. Russia has historically protected itself with its depth. It moved its borders as far west as possible, and that depth deterred adventurers -- or, as it did with Hitler and Napoleon, destroyed them. The loss of Ukraine as a buffer to the West leaves Russia without that depth and hostage to the intentions and capabilities of Europe and the United States.
There are those in the West who dismiss Russia's fears as archaic. No one wishes to invade Russia, and no one can invade Russia. Such views appear sophisticated but are in fact simplistic. Intent means relatively little in terms of assessing threats. They can change very fast. So too can capabilities. The American performance in World War I and the German performance in the 1930s show how quickly threats and capabilities shift. In 1932, Germany was a shambles economically and militarily. By 1938, it was the dominant economic and military power on the European Peninsula. In 1941, it was at the gates of Moscow. In 1916, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson ran a sincere anti-war campaign in a country with hardly any army. In 1917, he deployed more than a million American soldiers to Europe.
Russia's viewpoint is appropriately pessimistic. If Russia loses Belarus or Ukraine, it loses its strategic depth, which accounts for much of its ability to defend the Russian heartland. If the intention of the West is not hostile, then why is it so eager to see the regime in Ukraine transformed? It may be a profound love of liberal democracy, but from Moscow's perspective, Russia must assume more sinister motives.
Quite apart from the question of invasion, which is obviously a distant one, Russia is concerned about the consequences of Ukraine's joining the West and the potential for contagion in parts of Russia itself. During the 1990s, there were several secessionist movements in Russia. The Chechens became violent, and the rest of their secession story is well known. But there also was talk of secession in Karelia, in Russia's northwest, and in the Pacific Maritime region.
What was conceivable under Boris Yeltsin was made inconceivable under Vladimir Putin. The strategy Putin adopted was to increase Russia's strength moderately but systematically, to make that modest increase appear disproportionately large. Russia could not afford to remain on the defensive; the forces around it were too powerful. Putin had to magnify Russia's strength, and he did. Using energy exports, the weakness of Europe and the United States' distraction in the Middle East, he created a sense of growing Russian power. Putin ended talk of secession in the Russian Federation. He worked to create regimes in Belarus and Ukraine that retained a great deal of domestic autonomy but operated within a foreign policy framework acceptable to Russia. Moscow went further, projecting its power into the Middle East and, in the Syrian civil war, appearing to force the United States to back out of its strategy.
It is not clear what happened in Kiev. There were of course many organizations funded by American and European money that were committed to a reform government. It is irrelevant whether, as the Russians charge, these organizations planned and fomented the uprising against former President Viktor Yanukovich's regime or whether that uprising was part of a more powerful indigenous movement that drew these groups along. The fact was that Yanukovich refused to sign an agreement moving Ukraine closer to the European Union, the demonstrations took place, there was violence, and an openly pro-Western Ukrainian government was put in place.
The Russians cannot simply allow this to stand. Not only does it create a new geopolitical reality, but in the longer term it also gives the appearance inside Russia that Putin is weaker than he seems and opens the door to instability and even fragmentation. Therefore, the Russians must respond. The issue is how.
Russia's Potential Responses
The first step was simply making official what has been a reality. Crimea is within the Russian sphere of influence, and the military force Moscow has based in Crimea under treaties could assert control whenever it wished. That Sevastopol is a critical Russian naval base for operations in the Black and Mediterranean seas was not the key. A treaty protected that. But intervention in Crimea was a low-risk, low-cost action that would halt the appearance that Russia was hemorrhaging power. It made Russia appear as a bully in the West and a victor at home. That was precisely the image it wanted to project to compensate for its defeat.
Several options are now available to Russia.
First, it can do nothing. The government in Kiev is highly fractious, and given the pro-Russian factions' hostility toward moving closer to the West, the probability of paralysis is high. In due course, Russian influence, money and covert activities can recreate the prior neutrality in Ukraine in the form of a stalemate. This was the game Russia played after the 2004 Orange Revolution. The problem with this strategy is that it requires patience at a time when the Russian government must demonstrate its power to its citizens and the world. Moreover, if Crimea does leave Ukraine, it will weaken the pro-Russian bloc in Kiev and remove a large number of ethnic Tartars from Ukraine's political morass. It could be enough of a loss to allow the pro-Russian bloc to lose what electoral power it previously had (Yanukovich beat Yulia Timoshenko by fewer than a million votes in 2010). Thus, by supporting Crimea's independence -- and raising the specter of an aggressive Russia that could bind the other anti-Russian factions together -- Putin could be helping to ensure that a pro-Western Ukraine persists.
Second, it can invade mainland Ukraine. There are three problems with this. First, Ukraine is a large area to seize and pacify. Russia does not need an insurgency on its border, and it cannot guarantee that it wouldn't get one, especially since a significant portion of the population in western Ukraine is pro-West. Second, in order for an invasion of Ukraine to be geopolitically significant, all of Ukraine west of the Dnieper River must be taken. Otherwise, the frontier with Russia remains open, and there would be no anchor to the Russian position. However, this would bring Russian forces to the bank opposite Kiev and create a direct border with NATO and EU members. Finally, if the Russians wish to pursue the first option, pulling eastern Ukrainian voters out of the Ukrainian electoral process would increase the likelihood of an effective anti-Russian government.