As events in Ukraine unfolded last month, Crimea fell under Russian control after a widely-condemned referendum held under the barrel of a gun. In many ways this was simply a formality—the peninsula was already effectively under Russian control after the Russian Duma (parliament) authorized the use of force on March 1, and Russian troops rolled in. President Vladimir Putin has asserted Russia's intervention in Ukraine is aimed on countering the threat to the Ukrainian people from what he considers an illegal coup against the (still) legitimate government of President Viktor Yanukovych. In the time since, Putin has repeatedly presented Ukraine as chaotic and overrun by "extremists," "fascists," and "anti-Semites."
These allegations are blatantly false. The vast majority of Ukrainians who came out to protest in Kyiv were peaceful; and the Ukrainian parliament legally impeached Yanukovych. Yet perhaps most importantly, the Ukrainians do not need Putin's protection. This is a myth Putin invented to justify his intervention, which in fact broke a number of international laws.
If Western leaders were to take away only one lesson from the events in Ukraine, it is that Putin is going to keep fighting for control of this country. Ukraine is too important for him to give up. And Crimea may be just the beginning. Putin may now seize Donetsk and Kharkiv, as Russia's Federation Council gave Putin broad power to use armed forces beyond Crimea. Ukraine has seen instability and protests in the past, but until now there has never been a discussion about a split between Ukraine's East and West. What's at stake is not only the future of Ukraine's democracy and sovereignty, but Western credibility on protecting freedom—in Ukraine and beyond.
Why Ukraine is so important to Putin
Russia and Ukraine historically share a complicated love-hate relationship. For Russia, Ukraine represents a historical heartland. After all, its political and religious development in many ways engendered the origins of Russian civilization. For Ukraine, Russia has played the role of protector in the face of competing geopolitical claimants since the 17th century. Yet Russia's protection never came without a price. For centuries, Moscow has sought to subordinate and align Kyiv's interests to its own priorities. In a sense, this is exactly what Putin is continuing to do in the 21st century.
Today, Russia's fixation on Ukraine rises above simple sentimentality. There are real strategic interests at stake. Ukraine provides Russia—traditionally a land power—with an outlet to the Black Sea by hosting its warm water fleet in Sevastopol. Ukraine also provides key pipelines, which transport Russia's oil and gas to Europe—the staple of Russia's economy. And Russian oligarchs have extensive business interests in Ukraine's east. Viewed collectively, Ukraine is crucial to Putin's ambition to "raise Russia from its knees," which he felt was the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. He plans to do this by creating a Customs Union with many of Russia's former Soviet Republics and—eventually—a Eurasian Union. Without Ukraine, a Eurasian Union would lack any real clout.
Yet perhaps most importantly, the growth of civil society in Ukraine, and its ability to overthrow authoritarian rulers, scares Putin. He well understands that his own citizens could follow Ukraine's example to do the same to him. He also underestimated the Ukrainian citizens. For in his KGB mindset it is impossible—and undesirable—for a ruling authoritarian elite to lose control. It is not by accident that he stepped up his anti-American rhetoric in 2004 during the Orange revolution in Ukraine, claiming that only through Western intervention could the Ukrainians overthrow their leader.
Putin's intentions in Ukraine
Arguably, Putin intends to seize control of as much of Ukraine as possible, in part, simply because he can. The last several years of the U.S.-Russia Reset have left him confident in this belief. Furthermore, recent U.S. foreign policy, from Syria to Iran, has demonstrated—in his mind—that President Barack Obama is hesitant to enforce his own red lines and therefore Washington's verbal warnings lack weight. As such, Putin has responded to what he considers projections of weakness with increased aggression.
Putin has many levers in Ukraine besides sheer military force—so much so, that they arguably render any further military action unnecessary. He can use economic leverage to blackmail Ukraine's interim government by threatening to turn off Russia's gas, on which Ukraine is dependent. After all, he has done this before. Putin can cut exports—as he had threatened during Ukraine's earlier negotiations to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. Lastly, he can structure the Ukraine-Russia trade relationship on much less favorable terms. Just last week, Russia raised the price that Ukraine must pay for natural gas; and Russian banks have begun to pull out of Ukraine. More could leave.
Perhaps Moscow's strongest weapon is the massive propaganda campaign it has unleashed in Ukraine and Russia. This is based on the fabricated claim of "extremist" and "fascists" in Kyiv – dangers intended to scare Ukrainians, particularly in the East. It frames Russia as a better alternative and justifies Putin's actions to his own citizens. The Kremlin-funded Russia Today news agency has been running stories around the clock to support this myth. According to Nataliya Jensen, an independent analyst who recently returned from Ukraine, the interim government in Kyiv has been unable to counteract this mass fabrication with their own counter-narrative, leaving many Ukrainians vulnerable to targeted misinformation.
Implications for the West
While Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004 was "romantic," a kind of "first love" with democracy, the events of the Maidan protests since November have revealed a more mature civil society. In fact, many of the protestors distrusted not only Yanukovych but also Ukraine's political opposition. They had a much more somber assessment of reality, and it is through this prism they recognize the need for democracy and economic growth for the country. But this is easier said than done.
Going forward, Ukraine will need solid expertise to get on its feet, which the current government lacks. The role of the West cannot be overestimated here. The Western-backed $15 billion financial bailout for Ukraine was a step in the right direction, but beyond immediate assistance, Ukraine needs to seek and absorb Western know-how in the longer-term.
Politically, Western leaders should encourage Ukraine to integrate more with Europe and stand up to Putin. They must back their words with action, such as tough sanctions against Russian banks and businesses, terminating trade agreements through the World Trade Organization (WTO), and imposing restrictions on Russian officials involved in the Crimean occupation. One way this could be achieved is by widening the application of the 2012 Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which already punishes a number of Kremlin officials guilty of human rights abuses with visa bans and financial restrictions. Strength is the only language Putin understands.
Today, concerns are spreading beyond Ukraine. Since Crimea, warning bells have been ringing among U.S. allies from Warsaw to Tallinn. In particular, the Baltic Nations are worried about Russia's military buildup. Furthermore, U.S. intelligence sources reportedly believe Putin may be poised to invade Moldova. It is a somber reminder of the continued importance of U.S. engagement in the world. Putin has shown time and time again that whenever the West retreats, he steps in to fill the vacuum—be it in Eastern Europe or elsewhere. Indeed, stability in Ukraine is linked to economic stability and political freedom in Europe, and beyond. This makes the country too important to lose.