Russia’s de facto annexation of the Crimea — which President Vladimir Putin says is a humanitarian intervention — has exposed ugly motives all round. On February 22, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, panicking over public protests calling for early elections and a return to the 2004 Constitution, abandoned his violent crackdown on the protesters and fled the capital, Kiev. The national parliament voted to remove him from office and impeach him; Speaker Oleksander Turchynov took over as interim president, and the assembly decided to hold elections on May 25. Mr. Turchynov has since then made political appointments by decree, and some of his choices have extreme right-wing and anti-Semitic backgrounds. On March 1, Russian troops moved into the eastern province of Crimea, without facing any resistance; the Russian military had, in any case, retained their Sevastopol naval base and various airfields under an arrangement made after the Soviet Union was abolished in 1991; there are now 16,000 Russian troops in the region. The West could only watch as a candidate for EU and NATO membership faced what could end up as a Russian takeover, or partition, or possibly a new status on the front-line of a fresh Cold War.
The western Ukrainian public were shocked by revelations of Mr. Yanukovych’s kleptocracy, which funded an opulent mansion and a country estate with an artificial lake, a full-size replica galleon, and a zoo; their eastern compatriots, mainly ethnic Russians, seemed to be disturbed less by the arrival of Russian troops than by a new law from Kiev abolishing the official status of the Russian language in their area. Moreover, Mr. Yanukovych resurfaced in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don and, according to a Russian diplomat, said he had asked Moscow for help; the U.S. reaction had already bordered on the surreal, with Secretary of State John Kerry, apparently forgetful of his own country’s conduct over Iraq, telling Russia not to invade a sovereign state on a “trumped-up pretext.” Washington also needs EU support for sanctions against Moscow, but many EU countries reject sanctions. Secondly, several western governments are implicated in the Ukrainian crisis; some of Mr. Yanukovych’s assets are owned by British-registered companies. Thirdly, NATO has tried to implement detailed plans for former Soviet republics like Georgia and Ukraine to join it. Moscow sees that as highly provocative; furthermore, by acting through NATO, western governments are all but eliminating accountability to their own legislatures and publics. While the legality of the Russian moves in the Crimea is at best uncertain, the West for its part needs to learn the lessons of the Cold War.