The unrest in Ukraine had been building for months. That unrest threatened the pro-Russian president of Ukraine, and therefore Russia’s fragile hold on power over its strategic neighbor. Russian President Vladimir Putin was extremely unlikely to make any overt moves either before or during the Sochi Olympics, but once the Olympics were over, all bets were off. Or, they should have been.
But just a day before Russian troops entered Crimea, U.S. intelligence saw no reason to believe that Putin would invade.
There was good reason to think Putin wouldn’t do it. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov told Secretary of State John Kerry that Russia respected the territorial integrity of the Ukraine. U.S. intelligence assessments concluded that the 150,000-man Russian military exercises announced by Putin on Wednesday were not preparations for an invasion of Ukraine because no medical unitsaccompanied the troops. And Russian and U.S. diplomats were still working on Iran and Syrian diplomacy. All of this followed a successful Winter Olympic games for Putin’s Russia.
None of that is good reason to think much of anything. It’s clear now that Lavrov was buying time; Kerry should never have been so credulous. Russia’s sole warm-water naval port is in Sevastopol, Crimea. Russia’s quest for warm-water navy ports has driven quite a bit of grim history over the past 300-odd years. Once Ukraine ousted its pro-Russian president, that port was at risk. If Russia lost it, it could not project naval power in the Mediterranean and the rest of its bases are iced over. For strategic reasons alone, Russia was likely to act in Crimea. Factor in the ethnic makeup of Crimea — it’s heavily majority Russian — and the fact that Putin does not want Ukraine tilting west, and it doesn’t take a multi-billion dollar intelligence community to see that Putin had motivations to act.