Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea to be a part of Russia on Tuesday and signed a treaty to make it so.
In a defiant speech, arguably “the most significant of his 14-year rule,” Putin refused to recognise the interim government in Kiev and drew deeply from Russian and Soviet history to bash the West.
“In the case of Ukraine, our Western partners have crossed a line, a red line,” Putin said. “They have been unprofessional, they have [been] irresponsible.”
Putin’s words exacerbated what is already the most tense international situation since the fall of the Soviet Union. Some consider the address to be the harbinger of a new Cold War, just as hostilities are intensifying on Ukraine’s eastern border.
“Putin doesn’t accept the abrogation of the European-brokered Yanukovych/opposition deal and accordingly views the Ukrainian government as illegitimate. This shouldn’t surprise the West (particularly given the importance of Ukraine to the Russian president), but the U.S. has refused to address [this issue].
“Now the Russians have responded with a sham referendum on Crimean independence, which Putin has promptly recognised. Warnings and redlines from the West — or at least, those that were remotely credible — were never going to have an impact on the Russians here; the importance of the interests are too asymmetrical.”
On Tuesday, Putin reiterated his view that “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites” executed the “coup” that ousted Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovych and turned Ukraine toward the EU.
That Russia’s ruler holds that position after the annexation of Crimea signals that the crisis is far from over.
“Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to create a new status quo at Crimea. Putin’s speech today made very clear that the Russians aren’t prepared to accept the present Ukrainian government going forward, Crimea or no Crimea.
“Which implies — at the very least — strong political and economic pressure, while the West and Russia exchange tit-for-tat sanctions. But there’s also a very real possibility that Putin doesn’t see a peaceful way to bring Ukraine back into the Russian fold, and so finds pretenses of mistreatment of ethnic Russians to justify a direct military intervention.”
The sanctions war is heating up, and the standoff between Ukrainian soldiers in their bases and Russian soldiers without insignia outside is boiling over: On Tuesday, a Ukrainian soldier died and at least one other was injured during a raid on a base in the peninsula’s main town Simferopol.
Consequently, interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said that the conflict was moving “from a political one to a military one because of Russian soldiers.”
Throughout the crisis, Putin has reserved the right to use force to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine from “lawlessness.”
The major concern in Ukraine is that pro-Russian special forces and other provocateurs will foment unrest in Ukraine’s east and south, which have sizable ethnic Russian populations, and Russia will subsequently invade under the pretext of protecting them.
Bremmer explained what the West can do in the given the severity of the circumstances:
“At that point, Iran-type sanctions come into play from the U.S. Whether or not the Europeans would follow (the Chinese won’t) is an open question. But this is becoming an extremely costly, and geopolitically dangerous, conflict. And as with the sparring over Syria, the biggest losers are ultimately the Ukrainians.”
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