Russian President Vladimir Putin is escalating the stakes by intervening in the Ukraine, and effectively taking control of the Crimean peninsula. On Saturday, the Russian Parliament gave Putin authority to use military force in Ukraine, citing the growing threat to Russian citizens and military. The move came one day after President Barack Obama warned the Russians that "there will be costs" if Russia violates Ukraine's sovereignty. But America's options to deter the Russians are limited.
Ukraine's relationship with Russia, to be sure, became complicated by its desire to move closer to the European Union and the West. For its part, the EU sought gradual economic integration and political cooperation with Ukraine in negotiations late last year. The EU demanded reforms from Ukraine, and it appeared that country was on track to adopt them as part of an agreement. But last November the Ukrainian government postponed signing the agreement, which led to massive, ongoing protests.
Meanwhile, last December, Ukraine's President, Viktor Yanukovich, agreed to a $15 bailout from Russia, for which protestors accused him of selling their country out to Russia. Putin had thrown Yanukovich a lifeline to help Ukraine avoid defaulting on its debts. But opponents, enraged that he had turned away from the West and embraced the Russians, called for his resignation. More than 80 protestors have been killed so far in the unrest, and last week President Yanukovich fled the country for Russia.
A new Ukrainian government suspended the Russian bailout and has turned to the International Monetary Fund for help. Crimea, which operates autonomously within Ukraine, did not recognize the new government. Meanwhile, Yanukovich declared from Russia that he is still Ukraine's president.
The name Ukraine means borderland, and the country shares a 1,500-mile border with Russia. About 17 percent of the 45 million people who live in Ukraine are Russian. Crimea is a peninsula in the southern portion of Ukraine on the Black Sea. Crimea became part of Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and that lead to tensions with Russia. Nearly 60 percent of the Crimean population, about 2 million people, is Russian. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is based at Sevastopol, on the Crimean peninsula, and the base is leased from Ukraine through 2042.
Putin rules his country with an iron fist. Many Russians favor his strong, Tsar-like leadership. But Putin's Russia has struggled to regain is superpower footing since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Corruption, onerous restrictions on free speech and human rights abuses in that country have embolden Putin's opposition. Moreover, many former Soviet states are pulling away from Russia's orbit; moves that could further weaken that country's influence and economic stability.
In August 2008, Russia sent its troops into Georgia to "protect" its citizens in separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A ceasefire was negotiated after four days of fighting, and many Russian troops were withdrawn. But Russian troops are still stationed in Ossetia and Abkhazia as a result of bilateral agreements with each government.
In 2005, President Putin said, in an interview, "First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." He added, "As for the Russian people, it became a genuine tragedy. Tens of millions of our fellow citizens and countrymen found themselves beyond the fringes of Russian territory." And, speaking about separatist movements in Georgia, he said, "The epidemic of collapse has spilled over to Russia itself."
Now Putin has decided to take on the immense challenge of trying to control the outcome of Ukraine's future. But instead of giving the former Soviet state the right to democratically decide its own future, he may, instead, divide the country in two, and ignite an all out war. And his preoccupation with Ukraine is certain to spill over into negotiations involving the future of Syria and Iran's nuclear weapons program.
The Sochi Olympics are already a distant memory, and any goodwill Russia received from them has been erased by Putin's blatant and outrageous actions against Ukraine.
It is time for the free world to rise up in support of Ukraine and to denounce Tsar Putin.