CRIMEA, UKRAINE. The coup d’état and ongoing internal political unrest in Ukraine, which ousted Viktor Yanukovych and brought a new interim government, seems to have displeased the authority of Russia. A reaction was not long in the coming.

A week after the overthrow of Yanukovych, armed men without insignia took control of two airports and a number of administrative buildings in the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula, where 58% of the population is ethnic Russians. Ukraine’s new administration claimed that those men had been Russian troops. At the same time, Vladimir Putin brokered a parliamentary approval for official deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine, considering the “life-threatening” situation of Russian nationals in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian interim administration and Western leaders, however, saw Russian action in Crimea as an act of aggression, a violation of sovereignty, and an armed invasion making use of a “trumped-up pretext”. Therefore, in response to official deployment of Russian troops, Ukrainian officials ordered full national military mobilization. Notwithstanding, it is important to acknowledge that fortunately there was no open confrontation between soldiers and no blood spilled. Furthermore, Russian troops did not advance further Ukraine and maintain their presence only in the Crimea, after seizing full control.

A comparison can be drawn between the current situation in Ukraine and the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia.
The latter was driven by Russian imperial ambitions and the agonic strategy of Russian officials to stop EU and NATO enlargement into the zones of Russia’s cultural and historic influence. Here should also be mentioned the U.S. deployment of a missile shield in Eastern Europe, which in the eyes of Russian leadership, is directed against Russia.

However, the purposes and reasons of the Crimea operation might quite differ. It seems that the silent consent of the West to revolt against the government in Ukraine bringing anti-Russian forces to power has irritated the Kremlin. The Russian reaction and consequential action, most likely was motivated by Putin’s interpretation that the West as always, is violating agreements, in this case the tri-partite (EU, Ukraine, Russia) deal to overcome the pressing political confrontation in Ukraine. This deal signed on February 21, foresaw in a transitional period with the pro-Russian Yanukovych remaining as president, albeit with less powers, until new presidential elections would be held in May of this year. This agreement would guarantee equal opportunities for all parts to work towards a political solution to end the internal conflict. However, the agreement did not last even a day.

The inaction of the EU towards the ongoing civil unrest in Ukraine convinced the Kremlin that the EU was not willing to take measures to back up implementation of the February agreement. These circumstances might have served as detonator for the Russian officials to start their game of “Risk” in Crimea.

The purposes of Russian “Crimean operation” might not be motivated by a desired secession of Ukraine’s territories. The Kremlin realizes that the “battle” with the West over Ukraine was lost long time ago. The ambitious Russian project of the South Stream, a gas pipeline to transport Russian natural gas through the Black Sea, bypassing Ukraine, serves as proof.

Therefore, although imperial ambitions of Russia might have played a minor role, the Crimea operations serve three different main purposes:

  1. A demonstration of military power towards the West, showing readiness to defend Russian interests in its traditional zones of influence.
  2. To serve as a signal to the interim government and future-elected Ukrainian administration not to revise the deal on the extension of the lease of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol. Without this lease, Russia’s navy potential would be jeopardized. The new elect government should take note of desired compliance with Russian interests in future negotiations.
  3. Addressed to the mindset of Russia’s own population, to strengthen the image of the Kremlin as a patriotic administration.

It is yet uncertain whether the Kremlin by the actions has achieved or will achieve what it had planned for. As time passes further military activities seem less probable to feature on the Russian agenda. Now, it is a perfect occasion for the West to mediate an end to the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia and open a dialogue.