A slow simmering conflict has festered just below the surface in Ukraine for some time, as deeply divided citizens and political parties weighed whether the country should align itself with the European Union and the United States or remain closely tied to Russia. Three months ago, these groups began to clash in protests that quickly turned violent.
At first the Russian stance on the protests and violence in the Ukraine appeared more posturing than an inevitable invasion on its neighbor, but a rapid series of unfolding events from the past few days perhaps tells a different story. Impeached Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (whom the Ukrainian government placed on an international wanted list for mass murder) turned up in Moscow earlier in the week allegedly asking for protection, to which the Russian government agreed as it still views Yanukovych as the legitimate President. Then Russian troops appeared at the Russian-Ukrainian border on combat alert, in what many originally believed a defensive position but now appears something else entirely.
President Obama expressed his concern in a televised speech regarding President Putin’s intensions in the Ukraine. He spoke about the need for all countries to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty because a breach could further destabilize the country. According to President Obama, Russia is welcome to participate in any joint efforts by the international community that will assist in the stabilization of Ukraine, including the formation of a democratic government and free elections for a new leader. However, President Obama issued a stern warning that “there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine” by Russia. Unfortunately, this is not the first warning from President Obama to President Putin that rings hollow.
Then the unsubstantiated rumors began to fly, such as the Russians taking control of Simferopol airport and parliament building in Crimea, which made it appear as if Moscow was perpetrating a coup in the Ukraine, all of which Vitaliy Churkin, Russian ambassador to the United Nations, categorically denied.
Another rumor that surfaced today centered on Putin recalling the Russian Ambassador to the United States but the Lower House’s Leonid Slutsky dismissed it as just that, another rumor. Furthermore, Slutsky said that Russia had no intension of severing diplomatic relations and that the ambassador would only return to Russia if a need for in-person discussions arose.
News broke on Saturday that the Russian parliament had approved troops to go to Ukraine. Official word from the Kremlin was that President Putin had requested troops “in connection with the extraordinary situation in Ukraine and the threat to the lives of Russian citizens,” though the current Ukrainian PM described that as an act of war.
This leaves Putin and Obama once again at odds, with Putin’s ‘watch this’ moment — directly challenging President Obama’s do-not-cross-that-line speech. In what appears a never-ending chess match, it’s Obama’s move.
Putin and Obama pretend that they have a decent relationship but in fact hardly agree on much of anything, including social issues, which led to President Obama missing the Olympics. Moreover, when the US wanted Russia to extradite Edward Snowden, Putin refused, once again thumbing his nose at Obama, which led to the cancelation of a bilateral meeting between the two leaders.
Had Putin made a power play to assert his influence in the Ukraine during the Olympic Games, he would have sabotaged his goal of winning prestige and proving to the world that he had modernized Russia. Though any international goodwill that Putin gained from the Olympics seems to have vanished in a matter of a week.
What happens to Ukraine in this geopolitical game? Russia and the Ukraine have strong economic and cultural ties, but the allure of the European Union may pull the country in a new direction. The tide will turn when the EU and the US decide the value of Ukraine as an ally. For Europe, Ukraine offers an energy connection to Russia and a larger economic market, for the US, it blocks the spread of Russia’s neo-imperial ideology. The Ukraine will continue to require monetary assistance, probably far more now that the situation has further escalated. Though the citizens will certainly remain divided after the outcome, Ukraine will most likely side with the better opportunity consisting of money and protection. But the West should expect a fight; Putin will not easily renounce the Ukraine.