Putin plays a dangerous game of geopolitical chess, using Crimea as another pawn.
By the looks of things, the Russian military looks set to stay in Crimea. Thousands of Russian troops have been deployed to a region that has enjoyed autonomy, but has been indisputably part of the Ukraine. In 1994, in return for giving up its massive arsenal of nuclear weapons, Ukraine’s borders were ratified by America, Russia and the UK in the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances.
Putin has sent his troops in under the pretext of protecting and supporting ethnic Russians in the region, who he says are at risk from ‘fascists’ from west Ukraine. The troops, he says are on a humanitarian mission, but in the same breath denies them being Russian soldiers.
The reality however, is starkly different. Sevastopol is home to Russia’s only warm water naval base, significant because the port doesn’t freeze up over winter and is therefore accessible at all times of the year. Russia leased it off the Ukrainian government, but with the Ukraine inching closer toward European integration, it is not inconceivable that the lease would not be renewable under a Europe-facing government, indeed it is a NATO membership condition that no non-NATO military bases stand on member territory. Whatever Putins historical justifications, or purported concerns for Crimean citizens may be, the port is the paramount reason that Russian troops now sweep the region.
But the issue goes deeper than simply the port. Yes it is important, but the taking back of Crimea has several deeper implications. It makes Putin look like a hero to his countrymen back home, it makes him look like a strongman to the rest of the world, and it sends a message to the former Soviet states that Russia is still in charge of the former Soviet sphere.
And Putins love for the Soviet Union is no secret, he has described its dissolution as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” – an obvious motivation for creating the Eurasian Union, an hitherto economic union which will strengthen politically and military, formally, from 2015 onwards. He has so far convinced two other states to join: Kazakhstan and Belarus, and there are three more likely members: Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrygzstan.
Ideologically then, he is driven to resurrecting the former empire, with Russia as its centre. Indeed his ideological foundations have been influenced in the same manner that perhaps have influenced all Russian leaders of the last century – Soviet, and now Russian exceptionalism – the belief that Russia is superior and it is big brother Russias duty to protect and take care of its smaller neighbours. In a more real sense though, Russia needs a friendly buffer state between it and NATO.
Putin, however aggressive and opportunistic, is not a stupid man. He would not want to enter a real conflict with the West, though it looks like he is making a risky move in the geopolitical game heads of powerful states make. At the same time, with so many natural resources at his control, Putin holds some fabulously good cards – it is his unpredictability that makes it terrifying watching him play.