Vladimir Putin’s ambitions are to reclaim some form of Russian supremacy and he is willing to risk everything to achieve this. This sets Putin apart from most global leaders. While ultimately he made his initial point of occupying most of the Crimea it is unlikely his ambitions will lead him to take any further territory in the Ukraine. This goal is manifested in the Crimean Peninsula. Russia’s Black sea fleet has already delivered an ultimatum to Ukraine’s forces stationed in Crimea to surrender or face an all-out assault. Crimea is strategically important to Russia because it is its only warm water naval base. Despite being a semiautonomous region, Crimea’s chief is appointed by Kiev. Kiev, following the downfall of Yanukovych, is clearly not as loyal to Putin. Therefore, the Kremlin did not delay sending in troops to the Crimea to secure its interests in the region.
However, Putin’s decision to send unmarked Russian troops was not a surprise. The same ploy was used during Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. The Russian parliament’s unanimous approval to place Russian troops in Ukrainian territory came as a surprise. This occurred shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama ended a conversation with his Russian counterpart. Why did Obama’s warnings not to circumvent international law and order fall on deaf ears?
First, Putin sees Obama as vulnerable. The American president is working through many unresolved and contested foreign policy issues; from reigning in Syria and Iran to mending relationships with allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia and securing a safe exist of American troops from Afghanistan. Much to President Obama’s chagrin, he is indeed dependent on the Kremlin’s support to rid Syria of chemical weapons and prevent the negotiations with Iran from collapsing. Moscow is allegedly mulling over an “oil for goods” deal with Tehran. Should this happen, the nuclear agreement with Iran will be vulnerable. Additionally, the United States needs to use Russian routes to remove its military apparatus from Afghanistan. Therefore, Putin believes he has the upper-hand.
Similarly, the European Union is conflicted over how to respond to Moscow. Russia is the EU’s third largest trading partner, generating around 300 billion euros ($413 billion) annual revenue and the EU is Russia’s largest trading and investment partner. This means that sanctions backed by the European bloc on Russia would affect both parties. Germany remains a major beneficiary of Russian fossil fuels. On the other hand, if a proposal to freeze the assets of Russians nationals is tabled by the United Kingdom, it may backfire. Over the years, the neo-oligarchs from Russia have pumped billions of dollars into the London markets. This puts them in the driver’s seat of the city’s economy. Taking this relationship into account, the EU may take Moscow into task verbally, but not practically.
Lastly, Ukraine is no match for its giant neighbor, either militarily or financially. Although Ukraine was the ninth largest weapon exporter in 2012, the country dismantled what was world’s third largest nuclear arsenal under the framework of the Budapest Memorandum. Therefore, Ukraine’s military can hardly deter Russian armed forces. Meanwhile, Russia has already devised a campaign to allure Ukrainian military personnel to defect. Reportedly, Ukraine’s flagship naval vessel docked in Crimea has pledged its allegiance to Russia. Above all, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, which makes support from NATO in the event of an invasion unlikely.
Furthermore, Ukraine needs money to bolster its languishing economy. It is estimated that Kiev needs as much as $25b in 2014 and 2015. However, its acting finance minister says the total may be higher. Putin has traded off Ukraine’s membership to EU with $15b of which $3b has already been issued before the fall of the Yanukovych regime. The European Union is ready to offer Kiev a financial package covering short-term expenses. Nevertheless, it is not possible for the IMF to resume talks until there is a fully functioning government. That said, Moscow can still trump all efforts by claiming Kiev’s outstanding dues from the Russian natural gas supply. Should Russia takes a tougher stance on the conditions of gas export, it will further crunch Ukraine’s economy.
Putin prefers to think Europe will not wage war against Russia unless the United States takes the lead which is very unlikely. In this dicey situation, Russia may annex Crimea to its federation and leave eastern Ukraine teetering on a precipice. This would be a triumph for Vladimir Putin who envisions building a Russian 21st century empire. When Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev handed the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine, many labeled it as a historic mistake. Vladimir Putin, a former intelligence officer of the KGB, will not pass up the opportunity to correct this.