The following is working draft:
Anyone with good knowledge of post-Soviet neighborhood and time to think things through should have guessed that Russia would have made some kind of a move to prevent the interim government of Ukraine from decisively anchoring their country to the West. And the referendum in Crimea could be just the first in a series of such moves. Yet, leaders of Ukraine's interim government and their Western partners must have somehow thought that Russia, which must have studied lessons of Western-supported Orange Revolution and Arab Spring, would do nothing, other than protest loudly as they steered the country toward the West and sought to solidify their gains, igniting concerns of the ethnic Russians/Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
It was, of course, short-sighted to hope that this part of Ukraine's population would happily accept an outcome, in which a victorious combination of pro-Western moderates and ultra-nationalists (some of whom have openly professed hatred for “Moscow-Jewish mafia” or fought on the side of Chechen rebels just because the latter's enemies were Russians) have not only excluded their representatives from the interim government, but also fired their governors, and moved to cancel the status of the Russian language, just because the Western governments are applauding another democratic revolution in Ukraine.
I was also quite surprised how some of these Western leaders had no problems quickly accepting collapse of the deal – that they brokered between Viktor Yanukovych and opposition on February 21st followed by the ouster of the Ukrainian leader, who by the way, was elected in a poll that Western observers declared to be valid only a couple of years before.
I am not saying Yanukovych didn't discredit himself through massive corruption, abuses and, use of deadly force against the protesters. And precisely because of these abuses he would have probably lost the early elections stipulated by the February 21st deal, if they were fair, and face prosecution. If that deal between Yanukovych and moderate leaders of the opposition had been honored, that opposition could have come to power peacefully in a democratic process that not only Western governments, but also Russia could live with. As I wrote in an op-ed submitted to Boston Globe hours after the February 21st deal was clinched, honoring that agreement was essential to preventing the threat of disintegration of Ukraine. And like some pundits in Russia and in the West, I can't help wondering what would have been reaction of the Western governments if protesters had built barricades in downtown Brussels or Berlin or Washington and stayed there for months, battling police, throwing Molotov cocktails and shooting. Would these leaders have accepted an outcome in which a legitimately elected president of a West European country is forcefully ousted rather than voted out or impeached and would they recognize those behind the ouster as the new government? I guess these are all rhetorical questions.
But as much as the Western support encouraged Yanukovych's opponents, it is the latter that are ultimately responsible for prompting a previously observant Vladimir Putin to spring into action in late February and giving him an excuse to intervene. Putin had remained observant as long as the most likely scenario was that there would be an early election, which either Yanukovych or Yulia Tymoshenko would win, and has publicly stated that he is prepared to work with either of them. But once that scenario became improbable after Yanukovych was forced out by a coalition, which excluded representatives of pro-Russian regions, but included anti-Russian ultra-nationalists, Putin felt compelled to act. And the victorious opposition's first steps gave him an excuse, if not a plausible reason, to intervene. The aforementioned steps did a lot to stoke worries of the population of eastern Ukraine and Crimea and nothing to alleviate Moscow's worries that Ukraine might first integrate first into West's economic structures, and then enter into a political-military alliance with the West. Somehow the victorious opposition failed to foresee that their leaders' rhetoric and actions would prompt the Kremlin to act and/or that the West would not act to help them defend Ukraine's territorial integrity.
Of course, only a few expected that Russia's response in Crimea would include use of armed forces in act of military persuasion. I did acknowledge the possibility that Russia may deploy troops in Crimea, but I didn't quite expect it to happen. I thought then and I still think now deployment of troops cannot be justified. It also will cost Russia economically and politically, possibly reigniting a Cold War, in which Moscow would have to become a junior partner of Beijing. It also strengthens Georgia's case as it tries to convince NATO to accept it. And violation of Russia's own commitments in the Budapest Memorandum undermines the supremacy of international law that Russia had been championing for so many years. It also, of course, sets yet another precedent of secession, which Russia may come to face if it weakens, reducing the cost of session for some of its ethnic republics.
I also bet that some of Russia's post-Soviet neighbors were quite taken aback by Vladimir Putin's moves in Ukraine. Those post-Soviet leaders who rule countries – that have sizable ethnic Russian diasporas – must have been particularly impressed and not in a good way. (And some of the post-Soviet leaders, such as Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia, may be also congratulating themselves privately for displaying foresight. We all now have a better idea of how Russia could have responded if Sargsyan had not decided last fall to suspend negotiating the association and free trade deals with EU and to agree enter Armenia in the Moscow-led Customs Union instead. And if Crimea doesn't only secede from Ukraine, but also joins Russia, it would allow Yerevan to point to this as a precedent for 'miatsun' (union) of Armenia and Karabakh as well as to argue in Moscow thatt the latter should support the case that Nagorno Karabakh Republic is making before the international community.)
Nevertheless, Moscow was bound to respond to developments in Kiev one way or another. And it should not have taken a rocket scientist to calculate that Russia had huge overt (economic) and covert (financial and organizational support for pro-Russian forces) leverage vis-a-vis Ukraine and that it would use it if antagonized.
Leonid Kuchma (who by the way was a rocket scientist) understood that so he balanced skillfully between Moscow, Brussels, and Washington without committing to or antagonizing either. Yanukovych tried to follow the same policy. He did it less skilfully than his mentor Kuchma (if only because he was blinded by greed of his and his retinue), but at least he tried. As for the leaders of the opposition that topped Yanukovych, they didn't even try to pursue a balanced policy, antagonizing Moscow. So they should not be that surprised that the Crimea is slipping out of their hands.
And if these leaders think Russia would stop after separation of the Crimea, then they might be wrong. Putin can still play some of the aces – that he still has up his sleeves – if the interim government continues to ignore Russia's interests in a neutral and friendly Ukraine, where rights of Russian speakers are fully protected. Putin would be more likely to play these cards if he concludes that a new Cold War is unavoidable and Russia won't lose much more from pursuing a more expansive policy vis-a-vis Ukraine.
Putin's post-Crimea aces include ethnic Russians/Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine. If escalated, the recent clashes between local activists and pro-Western activists in these eastern provinces would give Russia an excuse to intervene there too. Dispatching of a Russian unit to secure control of a gas facility in the Kherson region indicates the Russian military's preparedness to act outside the Crimea in Ukraine.
Russia also continues to exercise economic leverage vis-a-vis even a Crimea-less Ukraine. Russia also supplies more than 60% of Ukraine's gas and is the source of half of raw materials that Ukraine’s reprocessing industries use.
Russia is also by far the largest importer of goods and services from Ukraine. It accounts for more than 35% of exports of Ukrainian goods and more than 45% of exports of services from Ukraine, according to the latest batch of foreign trade statistics available at the Ukrainian government's web site as of early March.
Should Russia curtail trade with Ukraine, consequences for the Ukrainian economy would be on a scale that no hikes in trade with EU would able to compensate for.
If leaders of the interim government in Ukraine wish to prevent Russia from applying these and other levers of influence to undermine their rule, they should give a serious thought to codifying military-political neutrality in Ukraine's constitution along with the country's federalization (hopefully, with participation of Crimea, albeit that's extremely unlikely at this point). It would be as important to reconcile interests of eastern Ukrainian regions with the rest of Ukraine as well as to accommodate interests of the population in its entirety. It would be an understatement to say that, if Ukrainian elites and public learn to defeating their political opponents at polling stations rather than on streets, that could also help to turn Ukraine into a viable, stable and democratic country.
Otherwise, Ukraine might never achieve the badly-needed political and cultural cohesion while its powerful eastern neighbor will keep looking and finding excuses, if not plausible reasons, to intervene.
The following is working draft: