On Sunday, Crimea voted to split away from Ukraine and return to the Russian fold. For a vast majority of Crimea’s Russian-speaking population this is an act of redressing a monumental injustice that happened in 1991 when Crimea, which geographically, ethnically and historically is more Russian than many regions of Russia itself, became part of a foreign state as the Soviet Union broke up along arbitrarily drawn administrative borders.

However, reuniting a divided people may not have been the prime motive that forced President Vladimir Putin’s hand in Crimea. The Ukraine crisis is viewed in Moscow as a continuation of the Western plan to encircle Russia militarily and torpedo its reintegration efforts in the former Soviet Union.

The new leaders in Kiev installed with the West’s support are the same people who staged the “orange revolution” in Ukraine in 2004 and set Ukraine on the path of NATO membership.

Strategic catastrophe

Ukraine’s induction into NATO would be a strategic catastrophe for Russia. NATO would come within 425 kilometres of Moscow, cut off Russia from the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and squeeze it out of the Caucasus.

Conservative Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin, whose ideas of Russia’s Eurasianism as opposed to Western ultra-liberalism increasingly resonate in the Kremlin, views the current upheaval in Ukraine as “the battle of the unipolar world of U.S. hegemony against Russia.”

“Whereas in Libya we shunned the battle, because we had [President Dmitry] Medvedev at the helm, in Syria and Ukraine we have taken up the gauntlet,” Prof. Dugin wrote last month.

In Ukraine, Mr. Putin made the same point he has been driving home in Syria: regime change by force is illegal. When Western nations hailed the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Ukraine as “a democratic free choice of the Ukrainian people,” Mr. Putin’s reply was: Crimea also has the right to make its own free choice.

The West pushed Mr. Putin too far in Ukraine, which is more than just a former Soviet state. It is where the Russian nation was born — in medieval “Kievan Rus” — and it is still part of the “Russian world.” The West’s efforts to bring Ukraine into its orbit were viewed in Moscow as an encroachment on Russia itself.

“For Russia, it is not just a red line; it’s a solid double red line that no one is permitted to cross,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of Russia’s authoritative Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.

Ukraine, the second most powerful economy in the former Soviet Union, is a linchpin to Mr. Putin’s plan to build the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a Moscow-led version of the European Union. The U.S. denounced the plan as a disguised attempt to re-create the Soviet Union and vowed to disrupt it.

“There is a move to re-Sovietize the region,” Hillary Clinton said in 2012, when she was still U.S. Secretary of State. “It’s not going to be called that. It’s going to be called a Customs Union, it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that.”

“But let’s make no mistake about it,” she added. “We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

An “effective way” to wreck Mr. Putin’s project was found when the European Union offered Ukraine an “either-or” choice between closer ties with Europe or membership in Mr. Putin’s EEU. As former U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote years ago, “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire in Eurasia.”

Mr. Yanukovych used the E.U. talks for a free trade and association pact in order to play Europe against Russia in an attempt to get the best deals from both sides, but overplayed his hand. When he scuttled the E.U. pact last November in favour of a multi-billion Russian aid package, Ukrainians felt robbed of their hopes for prosperous life in affluent Europe. It was an illusion assiduously nurtured by Western politicians and the media, but Mr. Yanukovych’s turnaround triggered mass protests that eventually brought down his kleptocratic and inept regime.

Apart from geopolitical compulsions, Moscow’s support for Crimea’s breakaway bid was driven by important domestic considerations. The protests in Ukraine, manipulated as they were by the West, reflected the rise of grass-root civic activity against corruption and authoritarianism — the same problems that bedevil Russia and that brought thousands of anti-government protesters onto the streets of Moscow two years ago. By intervening in Ukraine, Mr. Putin sought to stop the surging pro-democracy wave from spilling over to Russia.

Mr Putin is widely expected to seek a fourth presidential term in 2018. However, the protest rallies against his return to presidency in 2012 were a sign of growing wariness with his rule. A poll conducted by the respected Levada Centre last year found that half of Russians would like to see a new leader in 2018. A multi-thousand-strong rally in Moscow at the weekend showed that anti-Putin sentiments are still strong among West-oriented urbanites.

However, overall, Russians support Mr. Putin’s policy on Crimea’s reunification. A March survey showed that Mr. Putin’s approval ratings rose by 10 per cent in one month and were at the highest level in years.

Experts said Mr. Putin needs a new agenda to retain voter support — reassembly of lost Russian lands. “Putin has exhausted the limit of people’s gratitude for having saved the country from chaos and ruin,” said Prof. Dugin. “He needs a new future-oriented strategy to re-establish his legitimacy. Eurasian integration of the former Soviet space would give him such strategy.”

Serious risks

Mr. Putin’s intervention in Ukraine has brought Russia strategic gains but is fraught with serious risks.

Crimea’s reunification with Russia solves the problem of the Black Sea Fleet, which Ukraine’s new leaders vowed to shut down and for which there is no other basing location that does not freeze in winter. Russia retains strategic grip on the region and ability to project its naval power to the Mediterranean and beyond.

The Ukraine and Western powers said they would not recognise Crimea’s split from Ukraine, but Russia argued that Kosovo’s self-proclaimed independence from Serbia provided legitimate precedent. Moscow recalled the 2010 ruling by the U.N. International Court of Justice, which said that unilateral declaration of independence by a part of a country did not violate international law.

The example of Crimea has inspired other Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine to demand greater powers from the centre. If Ukraine switches from a unitary state to a federation, the pro-Russia regions will get the right to block any sharp swing of the country towards the West.

At the same time there is a risk of Ukraine sinking into chaos. Mr. Yanukovych’s downfall left Ukraine in shatters. The country is bankrupt and heading for default. The new authorities’ shaky grip on power may weaken further as they embark on harsh austerity measures to qualify for urgent assistance from the International Monetary Fund and Western governments.

The rise of far right and neo-Nazi groups, who spearheaded deadly clashes in Kiev last month, widened the chasm between Ukraine’s pro-Russia southeast and nationalist west. If Ukraine breaks up along the east-west divide, its western part will join NATO. This would be a dubious victory for Russia.

Russia’s relations with the West are fast deteriorating, but how far they will slide back is an open question. “The West and Russia have sailed into uncharted waters,” said Dmitry Trenin, head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.

The analyst predicted that U.S.-Russia geopolitical rivalry will intensify and affect their collaboration on Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. “Although the static military confrontation is unlikely to be resurrected, nuclear deterrence will be reaffirmed, and competition in the military sphere will spread to other areas, from cyberspace to conventional prompt global strike,” Mr. Trenin wrote in Foreign Policy.

Economic sanctions the U.S. and Europe threaten to impose against Russia will push it further towards China, experts said. India may also benefit from Russia’s pivot to the East, winning greater access to Russian energy resources and speeding up talks for a free trade agreement.

It is symbolic that the new round of East-West confrontation centred on Crimea, home to the 1945 Yalta Conference, at which the Soviet Union made its World War Two allies recognise its security interests far beyond its borders.

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