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.
Let’s throw in an additional factor: The Obama administration just announced cuts to U.S. military forces that take us back to a size not seen in 70 years. What sort of signal did that send to Vladimir Putin? When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the cuts meant that the era of American military dominance was coming to an end, did he think that the only ones who would be happy with that were the Democrats’ leftwing base? There were likely smiles in Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran and, of course, Moscow.
The sequence of the past week, then, has a grim logic. Ukraine unrest builds and its pro-Russian leader gets toppled. The Sochi Olympics come to an end. The United States announces military force reductions. Putin moves to secure Russia’s sole warm-water navy base and bring Ukraine to heel. Russia knows that the United States has a security treaty with Ukraine, so the next move is very much Washington’s. Obama delivers a terse statement in which he does not characterize Russia’s move as an “invasion,” takes no press questions, and then heads off for “happy hour” and delivers a sharply partisan speech to the Democratic Party. Obama has made no effort to unify Americans ahead of what may be the most dangerous foreign policy situation since the end of the Cold War.
Putin knows that the United States is debt-ridden and war-weary. He knows that Europe is in no mood for a war and is not capable of sustaining one without the United States, and that Britain is incapable of stopping him on its own (UK is a signatory to that Ukraine security treaty). He also knows that if the U.S. abrogates its security treaty with Ukraine, then the world stops spinning around Washington and may start spinning around Moscow. He also knows that the team atop the U.S. government consists of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel. Those four hardly constitute a national security dream team. None of them have a record of consistently pursuing America’s national interests above other considerations.
And now, the Russian Duma is calling on Russia to recall its ambassador to the United States. Putin could use that demand to present himself as the cool head. Or he could go along with it. If that happens, it’s a major escalation of what is already an almost unbelievably dangerous situation.