The Sochi Winter Olympics, a magnificent obsession of the inscrutable Russian President Vladimir Putin ended on a high note for him and his countrymen. However, hardly had the Sochi glow faded that the many months long simmering crisis of governance in Ukraine boiled over. The allegedly kleptocratic Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to flee Kiev pursuing safety in Russia, after being ousted by the Ukrainian Parliament. In the past few weeks, in an extraordinary bout of repression, his police had reportedly killed around 80 protesters and injured hundreds, in a futile attempt to quell a widespread rebellion against his oligarchical rule. The interim government in Kiev pending fresh elections had made the damning charge that Yanukovych and his cronies had siphoned off billions of dollars and stashed them abroad. Dolefully, the new government proclaimed that the Treasury was empty. Ukraine was bankrupt.
Ukraine became independent in 1991 following the dissolution of the grandiloquently styled "Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics" (USSR). It is a large country of 46 million with an area of more than 230,000 square miles. Included in Ukraine's territory is the strategically crucial Crimean Peninsula which is home to Russia's military assets including its Black Sea fleet. In the Peninsula's population of around 2 million, media reports suggest that the majority are of Russian extraction. Russia also has strong economic linkages in Eastern Ukraine which also contains a large ethnic minority of Russians.
It was inevitable that the Russian leadership would assess, extremely negatively, the downfall of their ally Yanukovych. It must have particularly rankled Putin that having promised Yanukovych a $15 billion bailout to redress Ukraine's parlous economic condition, in return for maintaining strong ties with Russia, Yanukovych would not only have quietened the protests of his countrymen, but also very importantly from Moscow's perspective, kept Ukraine in the sphere of Russian influence. Probably Putin had not fully anticipated that Yanukovych's brutal repression against the persistent demonstrations calling for his ouster and the establishment of strong links with the European Union (EU), would bring Ukraine -- or more accurately, its western part -- to the boiling point. The fact that the street had defeated the oligarchy was an unsavory prospect for the authoritarian Putin for whom it could become an unwelcome precedent.
Given his secretive personality -- not unrelated to his KGB past -- Putin is putting incremental pressure on the newly anointed interim government in Kiev. He is doing this by infiltrating his troops to "safe guard" Russian bases in Crimea. After the fiasco of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan more than three decades ago, and the attendant humiliation it visited on the then-Soviet Union, the second global super power, a less militarily robust Russia today under Putin is unlikely to try the Afghanistan option in Ukraine.
The reaction of the United States (US) and the European leaders has so far largely been one of ritual condemnation of Russian moves in Ukraine. Despite its reduced power, Russia is still a nuclear weapon-wielding power, and a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council. Putin probably knows that neither the US, nor the UN, nor NATO is likely to threaten him with a military response. Yes, there will be diplomatic and economic costs for Russia which it can probably absorb without too much pain. It should be remembered that Russia has vast deposits of oil, gas, and other natural resources which it exploits to maintain its political and economic clout.
It is important for all the political actors affected by the Ukraine crisis to use diplomatic methods to resolve it. There is no military solution to it. There are simmering tensions between the Russian and non-Russian components of Ukraine's population mix, which in today's charged atmosphere could easily escalate to further bloodshed and turmoil in that unfortunate country. The new leadership in Kiev of course requires a show of support, both financial and political, by the western leaders. Also importantly, these leaders should counsel the Ukrainian leadership to make a special effort to include ethnic Russians in the governmental apparatus. This could allay the apprehensions of Putin and others that the Russian ethnic minority in Ukraine would be marginalized in the future politics of Ukraine.
Obama and Putin, and to a lesser extent the main EU leaders, will have to show statesmanship of a high order. It was a good move for Obama to have reached out recently to Putin for an extended exchange of views via telephone. Media reports suggest that Obama in part acknowledged that Russia had legitimate interests in Ukraine. Apparently in tandem with this conciliatory statement he also cautioned him not to overreach himself by ordering an outright invasion of Crimea or parts of eastern Ukraine. Such a move would be against international law and would not be countenanced by the vast majority of the international community.