Less than a week after the closing ceremonies of the highly controversial Sochi Olympics and the removal of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from office, Russia has edged the Eastern European continent toward regional war. In what has now become an international crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin has disregarded President Obama’s warning against escalation and military intervention by sending over 15,000 masked troops into the Russian-speaking Crimean peninsula.
The crisis in Ukraine demonstrates the problem facing former Soviet republics. Ethnically divided between ethnic Ukrainians in the North and Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the Crimea, Ukraine is torn between enlarging its role in the European continent by campaigning for a bid to the European Union, or acquiescing to Putin’s demand for a Russian trading bloc. Russia has forced this choice—to Europeanize by relinquishing Russian ties or to weaken sovereignty under the protective control of Putin—on former Soviet states. Thus far, Belarus and Kazakhstan have submitted to Russia’s customs union. Ukrainian progressives, mainly from Northern Ukraine, lost their chance at embracing Westernization at the end of 2013, when Yanukovych rejected the EU’s olive branch of economic reconciliation, instead accepting Russia’s $20 billion bailout.
Putin has seized the opportunity to use the crisis in Ukraine as display of 21st Century Russia, taking care to distinguish this military endeavor from Soviet-era tactics. Putin’s use of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian assembly, in order to authorize Russia’s use of military force in Ukraine, though certainly questionable in its legitimacy, has emphasized to the world that there some semblance of republican order to the Russian Federation. Additionally, Putin’s intentions appear much more clear than Soviet-era intervention, notorious for its destabilizing unwieldiness. The Russian troops surrounded but did not shut down the airports and have maintained general peace in the region, despite the fierce conflict between pro-Russian and pro-Western forces on the Ukrainian continent. The entrance of these Russian troops perhaps reveals Putin’s hope for a Crimean secession and reintegration with Russia.
Furthermore, Putin has used this crisis as a showcase of Russian military might. Pouring 15,000 troops in the Crimea in fewer than 24 hours and quickly quarantining the Crimea from the rest of the state, Russia has made quick work of the new powder keg of Eastern Europe. Despite both President Obama’s and Ban Ki-moon’s condemnatory attitudes toward Russia, Putin has turned a blind eye to these voices and asserted Russia’s hegemony in the region by disregarding Ukrainian sovereignty. Without running the risk of an international crisis and accusations of interventionism, the United States appears powerless in what Putin has claimed is a regional conflict, in which Russia has “a right” to claim the Crimea.
Yet, this display of a modern Russian Federation shares uncanny resemblance to the Cold War. Over two decades after dissolution, Russia is now beginning to reconsolidate its political and economic power over the former Soviet bloc, against the recommendation of the United States. Despite setting his goals lower for now in not aiming for the realignment the entire Ukraine, Putin appears to view himself as welcoming in a new era of Russian dominance. And at what better time to christen this new age than at the end of the spectacle of the Sochi Olympics, where Russia topped the medal count, leaving the United States in its tracks at second.