Moscow’s chiseling off a bit of Ukraine was a needless, nervous overreaction to the fall of the Yanukovych regime in Kyiv. The Russian Federation already had effective control of Crimea.
The Kremlin’s ham-handed land grab illuminates its defensive crouch, revealing Vladimir Putin as cornered animal. Russia really is acting from weakness. Its buffer states are long lost, NATO has pushed to its border and now that its crony in fraternal Ukraine has fled, the danger of democracy has drawn right up to Mr. Putin’s door.
Weakness doesn’t imply impotence. Animals fearing mortal peril are more likely to lash out, and one immediate and obvious potential target is the NATO alliance, whose expansion into the Baltics, however good it may have looked at the time, has left it recklessly exposed.
In 1994, as Russia lay shambolic after the Soviet collapse, NATO welcomed former Soviet republics and satellites into its Partnership for Peace. Five years later the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland became full NATO members. Five years after that, ten years ago this week, NATO took in seven more countries, three of which, the Baltic states, border Russia (Poland also has a border with the Russian exclave Kaliningrad).
Proponents of expansion at the Brookings Institution wrote that “… fears that enlargement would provoke a new cold war were always greatly exaggerated.” Until now. They argued that “… enlargement will be most successful if it can be accomplished without driving a wedge between Russia and the West.” To the contrary, pushing a military alliance that was founded to oppose Russia right up to Russia’s border has done precisely that, giving an embattled Russian leader an opening to upset the entire Allied apple cart.
When the Russians made their move in Crimea, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk called upon them not to “violate the Budapest Memorandum,” a 1994 document in which signatories Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States pledged to respect Ukrainian sovereignty and refrain from the use of force against it.
Ukraine saw the memorandum as protection from invasion. Russia violated it explicitly and the U.S. and U.K. brushed it aside, calling it a “diplomatic document,” not a treaty. So much for diplomatic documents. So now Yatsenyuk is on to Plan B, signing deals with the EU, inveighing against Russia, pleading for Western support.
It may be, as Gideon Rachman has written, that a Ukraine war would spell disaster for Russia. But there are more clever ways for the Russian leader to wreak calamity than a military assault on the Donbass.
Consider NATO’s northeasternmost outpost, the Estonian border town of Narva, along the main highway from Tallinn to St. Petersburg, which is 82% ethnic Russian (2011). Suppose Mr. Putin were to move, let’s say, 200 un-uniformed men just over the border to protect the ethnic Russians there against intolerable harassment at the hands of the evil, brutish Estonians.
Neither the U.S. nor the Europeans ever meant to commit troops to Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO. Do you think they would go to war in Estonia, which is? Sent to buck up the allies last week, Vice President Biden strongly implied that they would. In Lithuania and Poland he declared the U.S. “absolutely committed” to defending its allies.