Once the president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia, abandoning his country, and it became apparent that a movement existed in Crimea to rejoin Russia existed, the situation, which had been an internal struggle over the economy and future direction of the nation, quickly spiraled into further chaos.
First, the self-exiled president called for an election in Crimea for the people there to decide if they wanted to remain part of Ukraine or rejoin the Russian federation. A quick election took place with a reported 88 percent of the population there desiring reconciliation with Russia. Ukrainians living outside Crimea weren’t allowed to vote; if they had we could assume that the election results would be very different. But that vote is all that the Russians need to support their political ambitions of keeping Ukraine under their political control. To make a quick comparison to the United States, imagine if many people in New Jersey wanted to become English citizens again. Now imagine if a state-wide vote revealed that 88 percent of the people in the state wanted to rejoin the United Kingdom. How would we feel? That’s the way Ukrainian people feel right now!
As the Russians already occupied a naval base in Crimea (at Sevastopol) based on a treaty with Ukraine, they were able to quickly increase their military presence in the area. Ships and troops were moved onto the base, threatening Ukraine. In addition, pro-Russian Crimean militia joined their Russian brethren taking over the surrounding area.
Russian President Vladimir Putin then signed a treaty to incorporate the Crimea back into its territory. This move as welcomed by many Russians but condemned by Ukraine’s new government, which called Putin’s move “a threat to the civilized world and international security.”
The West and Ukraine described the Crimean referendum as illegitimate and being held at gunpoint. The United States and European allies imposed economic sanctions on Russia, targeting Russian and Crimean officials with visa bans and asset freezes.
Newly-elected Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov has his back against the wall. His forces are too small to oppose the Russian military. Ukrainian Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh was refused entry to Crimea when he tried to visit the region last week. Even he couldn’t enter the area.
NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was formed after World War II to balance the Russian influence in Eastern Europe. NATO’s collective economic strength is 20 times wealthier than Russia ($40 trillion in GDP versus $2 trillion). NATO’s collective military strength is also overwhelming compared to the Russians. However, as Ukraine is not a member of NATO, any threat to their national security will not trigger an armed response from NATO states. Thus, as of now there will not be any fighting between NATO forces and Russian forces.
So far, NATO will only say that they will conduct “war games.” These maneuvers are the traditional way that countries flex their military muscle at a threat without any type of formal declaration of hostilities. However, military forces in some NATO member countries, like Poland and Germany, have their forces on high alert.
The USA is the most important NATO member (followed by Germany, Britain, and France) and is still involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the American public wouldn’t support another war, any response by NATO will be symbolic at best.
What is evident by Russia’s previous invasion of Georgia and its invasion of Crimea is that the Russians deeply want to regain territory lost with the collapse of the former Soviet Union. A majority of Russian citizens seem to support this annexation of territory. The present situation in the region is analogous to Germany in the late 1930s. Back then, Adolf Hitler was suing his military (1935 in the Rhineland and 1938 in Czechoslovakia) questionable elections (in 1938 in Austria) to reclaim territory lost at the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Hitler was adored by the masses of German citizens who believed he was restoring their lost pride. Unfortunately, his machinations led directly to World War II (September 1, 1939 – September 2, 1945).
This situation in Crimea is alarming, but does not yet pose a real threat to the stability of Europe. We should, however, be concerned to the extent that a newly-democratic nation has had part of its sovereign territory taken over by another nation. We, therefore, need to closely monitor Russia’s geographic aspirations. Small nations need to have their sovereignty respected.
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Read more from Michael Geary:
National Security and Civil Liberty: A Chronological Perspective. M. Geary (2014) Carolina Academic Press.
Terrorism Investigations and the Public Safety Exception to the Miranda Rule. M. Geary (2013) Homeland Security Review, Volume 7, Number 3.