The dangers of the crisis in Ukraine cannot be exaggerated. Russian President Vladimir Putin is overtly and covertly inciting separatism in eastern Ukraine, and has declared Russia’s unilateral right to intervene there, in complete contravention of international law. Russia’s provocative policies are putting it on a collision course with the West.
Putin explained his point of view in a recent television appearance — Russia’s current international borders are provisional, determined by accidents of history, such as the transfer of Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, or the transfer of Russian territories to eastern Ukraine in the 1920s.
Putin claims that it is Russia’s right and duty to defend ethnic Russians in neighboring countries, especially in light of the arbitrariness of the existing borders.
If ethnic Russians call for a return to Russia, Putin asserts, then Russia must heed their call. Putin pointedly reminded listeners that eastern Ukraine was called Novorossiya (New Russia) in Czarist times, clearly implying that it could be Novorossiya again.
Evidently, Putin believes that relentless pressure and claims over neighboring states, designed to undermine their sovereignty and force them to accede to Russian demands, will result in a stronger Russia, better able to confront the West.
In the recent past, Russia sharply opposed US and NATO military intervention in Libya, Syria and Serbia on the grounds that the West was violating those countries’ sovereignty. Now Putin claims the right to ignore neighboring countries’ sovereignty on the pretext that Russia is merely defending the rights of ethnic Russians abroad, up to and including their right to secede and join the Russian homeland.
Putin no doubt hopes to create facts on the ground — as in Crimea — without provoking a severe Western reaction. Even without an invasion, Russia can use threats, displays of military power, secret operations and heated rhetoric to destabilize its neighbors. That may be enough to achieve Russian foreign-policy aims, including its neighbors’ docility.
However, Putin’s adventurism is likely to end very badly for Russia. Though the West is justifiably reticent to be drawn into any military confrontations with Russia beyond NATO’s boundaries, and is even reluctant to apply economic sanctions, Putin’s actions have triggered a strong and growing anti-Russian backlash in the US and Europe.
The West’s response will intensify dramatically if Russia deploys forces across its borders, whatever the pretext — should Russia adopt subtler methods of political destabilization, Western pressure will build more gradually, but build it will.
Existing trade, investment and financial relations between Russia and the West are already becoming severely frayed. New investment projects and joint ventures are being put on hold. Loans from Western investors to Russian entities are being called in. Russian banks and companies will face a growing credit squeeze.
In the short term, Russia has ample foreign-exchange reserves to offset capital outflows, but the reversal of capital flows will begin to bite within a matter of months.
Following Russia’s forcible takeover of Crimea, it is almost unimaginable that normal economic relations between Russia and the West could survive Russian intervention, subversion or annexation elsewhere in Ukraine.