Ukraine in March 2014
A little over a week ago, the Russian-friendly President of Ukraine, a despot, though elected, was 'forced' to flee according to what was in our press--and a Western-friendly government took power after months of protests and disorder. Yanukovitch disappeared from the stage for the moment, but was not too much later to reappear claiming he had not 'fled' but had been forced out.
Russia makes clear that they do not recognize the newly-installed government in Kiev. The fact that Yanukovitch is waiting in the wings to be reinstalled as the 'legitimate' leader is an option no one in the press seems to be discussing.
The Russians and Ukraine have existing treaty agreements which already compromise Ukraine's ability to respond with integrity in the Crimea--armed forces of Russia are legitimately stationed in Ukraine by agreement. While the claim that activating those forces to 'protect' Russian ethnic populations in the Crimea provided a very thin veneer for the military movements, there was enough of a gloss that it wasn't a pure 'military invasion'.
YouTube immediately showed videos at checkpoints guarded by paramilitary 'friends of Russian nationals' and in one case, "Cossacks" who all swore they were there to protect the 'peace'.
The Ukrainian army, lacking allies who would bring to bear military force on their behalf, is ill-equipped to stop whatever action backed by force that Russia might take. If the Russians say that they are stepping in to support the restoration of Yanukovitch, there may be little validity to the action but it has enough of a cloak to keep their action from being laughed out of the court of world opinion. Other countries have used thin arguments to take strong actions. Iraq? WMDs?
Underlying this tense chess match is an imponderable. Ukraine has a shadowy nationalist movement that bears all the trappings of National Socialism, unabashedly. Part of the Russian rationale for intervention is to stop the resurgent Nazi tide, a theme not to be taken lightly knowing the price the Russians paid in the war to halt Hitler's ambitions. And those same insurgent nationalists could easily be the spark that sets a dangerous set of actions rolling down the track.
Ukrainian military leaders today spoke about possible staged provocations leading to more aggressive Russian moves. What seems even more likely is that nationalist Ukrainians could provide the motive without the Russians needing to fake an incident.
At the end of all this evaluation and discourse is the reality that the situation in Ukraine is volatile in ways that we might not easily anticipate. And could devolve into a crisis, despite everyone's best intentions, with deadly consequences.
The Great War was triggered at the beginning of the 20th century when Europe, wound up to hair trigger sensitivity over possible conflict, suffered the assassination of the leader of one of the rival parties. As they say, "All hell broke loose." Many constraints to that kind of unraveling exist today, but they are not foolproof. Missteps can march us to unexpected places.
I hope for the best.