Über-Realist Stephen Walt notes in No Contest Foreign Policy 03/03/2014 that the US and the EU didn't calculate the balancing of power and interests too well:
The Obama administration was clearly taken by surprise when Russia decided to seize Crimea by force. The real question, however, is why Obama and his advisors thought the United States and the European Union could help engineer the ouster of a democratically elected and pro-Russian leader in Ukraine and expect Vladimir Putin to go along with it? This remarkable combination of hubris and naiveté is even more striking when one considers that Washington has few, if any, options to counter Putin's move.Anatol Lieven writes about Why Obama Shouldn't Fall for Putin's Ukrainian Folly Huffington Post 03/04/2014:
To be sure, ousted president Viktor Yanukovych was corrupt and incompetent and the United States and the European Union didn't create the protests that rose up against him. But instead of encouraging the protestors to stand down and wait for unhappy Ukrainians to vote Yanukovych out of office, the European Union and the United States decided to speed up the timetable and tacitly support the anti-Yanukovych forces. When the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs is on the streets of Kiev handing out pastries to anti-government protestors, it's a sign that Washington is not exactly neutral. Unfortunately, enthusiastic supporters of "Western" values never stopped to ask themselves what they would do if Russia objected.
Over the past year, both Russia and the European Union tried to force Ukraine to make a clear choice between them -- and the entirely predictable result has been to tear the country apart. Russia attempted to draw Ukraine into the Eurasian Customs Union by offering a massive financial bailout and heavily subsidized gas supplies. The European Union then tried to block this by offering an association agreement, though (initially) with no major financial aid attached. Neither Russia nor the EU made any serious effort to talk to each other about whether a compromise might be reached that would allow Ukraine somehow to combine the two agreements, to avoid having to choose sides.Lieven believes that the likely downsides of such a move make it improbable. But he also notes that the Western governments haven't been entirely prudent in this situation:
President Viktor Yanukovych's rejection of the EU offer led to an uprising in Kiev and the western and central parts of Ukraine, and to his own flight from Kiev, together with many of his supporters in the Ukrainian parliament. This marks a very serious geopolitical defeat for Russia. It is now obvious that Ukraine as a whole cannot be brought into the Eurasian Union, reducing that union to a shadow of what the Putin administration hoped. And though Russia continues officially to recognize him, President Yanukovych can only be restored to power in Kiev if Moscow is prepared to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and seize its capital by force.
They have acquiesced to the overthrow of an elected government by ultra-nationalist militias, which have also chased away a large part of the elected parliament. This has provided a perfect precedent for Russian-backed militias in turn to seize power in the east and south of the country.Tom Hayden, Another Cold War? Peace and Justice Resource Center 03/03/2014 writes of the various and completely predictable warmongering from the Republicans:
The West has stood by in silence while the rump parliament in Kiev abolished the official status of Russian and other minority languages, and members of the new government threatened publicly to ban the main parties that supported Yanukovych -- an effort that would effectively disenfranchise around a third of the population.
This is another example of what C. Wright Mills called "crackpot realism." Proponents of NATO and corporate neo-liberalism simply are unable to stop pushing against Russia's borders and probing its most cherished regions. They already have incorporated Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland and the Czech Republic, most of what they call "post-Soviet space." They were repelled militarily when they sought to grab Georgia. That should have satisfied their thirst for full dominance. But they went too far, supporting protests in western Ukraine that toppled the elected government and now are pushing an International Monetary Fund agenda, which will deepen an economic crisis. Even before the current mess, the Kiev government flirted with NATO and sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.Fred Kaplan has been writing about this for Slate: The Collapse of Ukraine’s Brief Hope for Peace 02/22/2014:
The present conflict is very unlike the Cold War in one sense: there is no "communist threat." There are communist partisans in Ukraine of course; hot with their memories of the Nazis and fascists they fought in the Ukraine, and whose descendants now are active in the Western-supported Svoboda Party, which represents over ten percent of the national vote and up to 40 percent in the western Ukraine. [my emphasis]
On Wednesday, while condemning the violence in Ukraine, President Obama said that his approach was “not to see this as some Cold War chessboard in which we are in competition with Russia” but rather to ensure that the Ukrainian people can “make decisions for themselves about their future.”Putin's War 03/01/2014:
Three points are worth making here. First, international politics resembled chessboards long before the Cold War, and the resemblance will persist for eons to come. Second, Putin, well-schooled in the “Great Game” of his ancestors, certainly sees the battle for influence in Ukraine as a chessboard. Third, it is a chessboard, and there is a competition. Ukraine is a basket case: If Russia backs off, perhaps to penalize the surrendering Yanukovych (and Russia has halted the next $2 billion progress payment on its bailout), then someone has to step in. Are the EU and the United States up to it? If they aren’t, Ukraine will tumble. If they are, their move will be seen as a challenge to Russia, and tensions will soar, with accompanying miscalculations.
Ukraine is not West Berlin [of 1959-61]. More to the point, Ukraine is much more important to Russia than it is to the United States or to any Western European nation. Russia is on Ukraine’s borders; Putin sees it (as, again, would any Russian leader) as a vital market, supplier, and, most important, a buffer against Western encroachment. None of this implies support for Putin’s position, politically, morally, or otherwise. It merely describes the facts on the ground: the interests, the stakes, and thus the risks and options on all sides.How to Punish Putin 03/04/2014: "Here are the real lessons of the crisis in Ukraine: Russia is not a great power, and Vladimir Putin is hardly the master grand strategist that many American Cold Warriors have been weirdly eager to believe."
Which leads back to the original question: Why did Obama publicly state that aggression in Ukraine would trigger “consequences”? Clearly he was telling Putin to recalculate the potential costs and benefits of an invasion. But Obama was ignoring a simple fact: Putin would incur almost any risk to avoid losing Ukraine. To put it another way: There are no consequences—none that the United States could credibly threaten—that would keep Putin from doing whatever it takes to hang on to Ukraine.
More often than not, Obama has acted like a foreign-policy realist in the five years of his presidency. In his public statements on Ukraine these past 24 hours, he has not. Rather, he has drawn another "red line" that the threatened party feels it's worth the risk to ignore.
Also at Slate, Joshua Keating offers some background on the Crimea's uneasy current status in Khrushchev’s Gift 02/25/2014.