With Crimea transitioning towards joining Russia, tensions along the Russia-Ukraine border mounting and western economic sanctions increasing it is important to understand that this is still very much a fluid geopolitical conflict.
Things are changing everyday as western leaders condemn Russia’s actions while Russian President Vladimir Putin indignantly points to what he feels are western hypocrisies in the world of international relations.
Ukraine’s future remains largely in doubt as uncertainty surrounds the country’s upcoming May elections and loads of debt threatens to drive Ukraine toward bankruptcy. A massive loan by the International Monetary Fund should stabilize the situation to an extent, but Russia’s threat of raising Ukrainian gas prices could push the country further into dismay.
According to the New York Times, Putin has deployed at least 400,000 troops along the Russia-Ukraine border, an act of intimidation that signals the conflict is nowhere near over. Another reason to be concerned about the troops is the decisiveness with which they can act.
If this conflict has taught us anything it’s that the Russian government, with Putin calling the shots, is capable of fast, powerful decisions that require equally quick and significant responses.
Of the many perks that come with being a dictator, as Putin essentially is, the ability to set out a specific path for your country unimpeded might be most valuable.
Far from the checks and balances of most western systems of governance, Putin has the final say on all decisions, and doesn’t have to worry about political opponents slowing things down. That means he can execute complex actions without having to worry about the political landscape changing. From the successful Sochi Olympics to the calculated annex of Crimea, it is clear that Putin has a deliberate plan for Russia.
Despite the bewilderment being expressed from western leaders, the events in Crimea are actually logical extensions of a long-standing push for a renewal of Russian nationalism and anti-west sentiments not seen so strongly in the region since the Cold War.
Putin’s resentment of the west is not new, he just hasn’t shown his disregard and hatred so blatantly before. Now he is showing his hatred for western-dominated world politics, and he doesn’t need to meet with the Russian Congress, or Duma, to do it. Putin knew economic sanctions would be inevitable, but he also knows that those sanctions can only go so far.
Russia’s oil gives it more power than European leaders are willing to admit, and we’ve already seen Germany, the economic powerhouse of the continent, hesitate to severely punish Russia. So now it is a matter of how much the west can really punish Russia for its actions. Doing too little could encourage Russia to take other chunks of land it deems valuable.
Doing too much could trigger a Russian response (like, say, shutting off the gas to Ukraine) that would only exacerbate tensions.
The bottom line is that no one in the west can be sure of Putin’s intentions, and Obama said as much in a recent interview.
When we look back on this conflict many years from now, we may see it as an isolated incident that only temporarily hurt Russia’s relations with the west. Or it might be part of a bigger trend towards the kind of isolationism that defined communist Russia.
Zach Winn can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org