In his 14 years in power after a career as a KGB officer grieving the loss of the Soviet empire, Russian President Vladimir Putin has launched three wars against Russia’s neighbors and territories formerly under the Kremlin’s domination.
As a newly appointed prime minister in 1999, before becoming president on New Year’s Day 2000, he launched his career with a war in Chechnya, brutally suppressing an armed insurrection against Moscow’s rule in the north Caucasus and razing the provincial capital, Grozny.
In 2008, he ordered a blitzkrieg against Georgia, partitioning the country in five days.
He remains in control of 20 percent of Russia’s Black Sea neighbor: the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Russian military also controls a slice of Moldova known as Transnistria in a frozen conflict dating from the collapse of the Soviet Union.
However, in Crimea and Ukraine, in the event of full-scale war, Putin has opted for a game-changer with the potential to be Europe’s worst security nightmare since the revolutions of 1989 and the bloodiest since the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s attempts to wrest control of former Yugoslavia resulted in four lost wars, with more than 100,000 dead, and spawned seven new countries in the Balkans.
Ukraine is a pivotal country on the EU’s eastern and Russia’s southwestern borders. Territorially, it is bigger than France.
Its population is greater than Poland or Spain, at 46 million. It has fighting forces and is well armed. Ukraine was the Soviet Union’s arms-manufacturing base and it remains in the top league of global arms exporters. And although its military is no match for Russia’s, its fighting forces will be able to inflict a lot of damage if forced to defend their country.
THE GEORGIA SCENARIO
The most benign outcome is that Putin envisages a Georgia-style incursion, a brief week of creating new facts on the ground, limiting the campaign to taking control of the Crimean Peninsula with its majority ethnic Russian population, and then negotiating and dictating terms from a position of strength to the weak and inexperienced new leadership in Kiev.
Putin made no public comments after last week’s revolution in Kiev that saw the flight of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych to Russia until his Crimea operation, well-planned and activated without a shot being fired, was effectively over.
The military operation was accompanied by political moves — the regional parliament and political leadership calling for Russian help, declaring loyalty to Moscow, disowning the new administration in Kiev and ordering a referendum on Crimea’s status by the end of the month.
If that is the aim, it is virtually mission accomplished. The goals were achieved even before NATO ambassadors could gather in Brussels on Sunday or EU foreign ministers could assemble to ponder their options on Monday.
However, there are plenty of signs that controlling or even annexing Crimea may not sate the Russian appetite in Ukraine.
A more ambitious and much more dangerous scenario is also entirely conceivable.
THE YUGOSLAVIA SCENARIO
If the Crimean seizure has been easy and bloodless, it is because of the heavy Russian military assets there, the support of much of the local population and because the Ukrainian forces there were caught off-guard by the speed of the takeover, and also because they are under orders not to fight back (yet), for fear of provoking a significant and bloody escalation.