Men in military fatigues, armed with assault rifles, don’t magically appear out of nowhere. The fact that such individuals have taken control of two key airports in Crimea—a majority Russian-ethnic part of Ukraine—is not an indication of spontaneous protests against the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev. Rather it is a barely covert Russian military offensive designed, one assumes, to separate Crimea from the rest of Ukraine and bring it under de facto Russian sovereignty.
This would not be a new strategy for Vladimir Putin and Russia—it is similar to the way that Moscow has backed the breakaway regions of Transnistria in Moldova and South Ossetia in Georgia, in the latter case justifying an outright invasion of a sovereign neighbor based on the excuse that action was necessary to protect poor abused ethnic Russians. This also recalls how Hitler justified his invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland on the grounds of protecting ethnic Germans.
Indeed the Russian fingerprints are blatantly obvious all over the Crimea operation even if the men in military uniforms—presumably affiliated with the Russian military, the Interior Ministry special forces, the FSB or some other branch of the Russian state—are not wearing any identification or taking any questions from reporters. Elsewhere in Crimea armored personnel carriers with Russian markings have been spotted on the roads. Russia does not even have to undertake a formal invasion of Ukraine; through such semi-covert action it can make massive trouble for the new pro-Western government in Kiev.
The question now is how the West—assuming such a thing still exists—will respond to Russian aggression. Based on the experience of Georgia in 2008—the last time Russia invaded one of its neighbors, that time using columns of tanks rather than rifle-wielding mystery men—the response will be scant.
Certainly John Kerry’s warnings about Russia “crossing a line in any way” cannot carry much weight with Putin, who remembers all too well how President Obama allowed Bashar Assad to cross a previous “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. But the issue is not just Obama’s credibility or lack thereof; George W. Bush was still president in 2008 and he did precious little about Russia’s invasion of Georgia.
The more general issue is that Russia, while no longer a superpower, remains an important power that Washington hesitates to antagonize because of a general feeling that we need Russian help to deal with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and other important issues—and a sense that there is not much we can do anyway against a nuclear-armed state. Such sentiments are understandable but they should not be a bar to serious non-military action—for example imposing sanctions on either the Russian economy as a whole or on particular individuals, i.e., senior members of the government and their business world cronies who have built up hefty bank accounts and real estate portfolios in the West. At the very least the Russian elite must be made to pay a price if Putin does not stop his aggression against yet another former Soviet republic. More than that, the West must rally to the cause of the new government in Ukraine and provide the kind of support it needs–beginning with a financial lifeline–to withstand Russian intimidation.