As politicians and pundits ponder why a previously observant Vladimir Putin has decided to act after Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from Ukrainian presidency by a coalition of pro-Western moderates and nationalists, one theory is more recurrent than others. The ascent of the pro-Western opposition to power in Ukraine ruined Moscow's hopes that Kiev would remain if not only friendly, then at least neutral in its military-political aspirations. After all, signing of the association agreement with the European Union, which has a military cooperation component, has been one of the prime goals of the victorious opposition.
The agreement's Article 10 provides for “increasing the participation of Ukraine in…. relevant exercises and training activities, including those carried out in the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).” And CSDP has been expanded by the Treaty of Lisbon – that EU members clinched in in 2007 – to “gradually establish a common European defence” and to introduce “a mutual defence clause.” “If a Member State is the victim of an armed attack on its territory, it can rely on the aid and assistance of the other Member States, which are obliged to help,” according to the treaty. Now this expanded CSDP has a restriction that moderates this mutual defense clause for countries, which are traditionally neutral. And Ukraine can be considered traditionally neutral. After all, it is not a member of any military alliance and it is July 1990 declaration of independence says: “Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic solemnly declares his intention to become permanently neutral state which does not participate in military blocs.” At the same, however, neutrality is not codified in Ukraine's constitution, so Russia has some reason to worry about CSDP's potential in future. For now, however, CSDP is not even a paper tiger, so the interim Ukrainian government's ambition to sign the treaty should not have generated as much concern as actions of Ukraine's 2005-2010 president Viktor Yushchenko did.
Back in 2008 then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko was actively and publicly pushing for Ukraine’s membership in NATO. His aspirations to enter Ukraine into NATO during his presidency fell flat when the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008 didn't give Kiev a membership action plan. Nevertheless, didn't Yushchenko cross Russia's redline when NATO announced at its April 2008 summit in Bucharest that Ukraine would eventually join the alliance one day?
After all, since coming to power in 1999 Russia's Vladimir Putin has repeatedly made clear that expansion of NATO to Ukraine constitutes crossing of a Russian redline. For instance, Putin said at the time when the Bucharest summit was taking place:“The presence of a powerful military bloc on our borders, whose members are guided by Article 5 of the Washington Treaty will be seen as direct threat to our national security.” Warning that Russia would react strongly to expansion of NATO to Ukraine and Georgia, Mr. Putin said: “Let us be honest with each other — we will treat you as you treat us.” And one year later Putin's protege Dmitry Medvedev signed off on Russia's National Security Concept Through Year 2020, which stated that “a determining aspect of relations with NATO remains the fact that plans to extend the alliance's military infrastructure to Russia's borders, and attempts to endow NATO with global functions that go counter to norms of international law, are unacceptable to Russia.”
So why didn't Putin intervene in 2008 as NATO promised to Yushchenko that Ukraine would be in NATO, but he acted to intervene in Ukraine in 2014 as the interim government denied any ambitions to seek NATO membership anytime soon?
I suspect there are multiple reasons. Generally speaking, conditions were not as conducive for immediate response to the crossing of the line in 2008 as they became after the “Euro-revolution” in February.
In 2008 Ukraine had a legitimately elected elected leader and a functioning government that could organize a better response to an intervention and could do a better job rallying support abroad.
Also Russia lacked a plausible excuse, which the perceived threat by victorious ultra-nationalists in Kiev might or might not have posed to Russian speakers in Ukraine. And the fact that the Yushchenko government refused to give the Russian language special status didn’t qualify as an excuse on its own.
Putin might have also thought at that time that Georgia’s NATO ambitions represented a greater threat, especially as tensions escalated over S. Ossetia and Abkhazia throughout the spring and summer of 2008, ultimately culminating in a war. If Russia had intervened in Georgia and Ukraine in the same year, Western countries would have been more likely to impose longer-term painful sanctions on Moscow.
And as time went by, the redline got “uncrossed” in Ukraine when Yanukovych beat Yushchenko in the 2010 elections, and announced Ukraine will not seek membership in NATO while also extending stay of Russia’s Black Sea fleet in Crimea.
The alternative explanation could be, of course, that while being a nationalist, Yushchenko didn’t represent as much of a threat to Russian speakers in eastern and southeastern Ukraine as the current interim government, in which some of the key posts in the national security and law-enforcement agencies were occupied by representatives of political parties that had very strong anti-Russian views.
But I doubt that, by itself, the desire to defend the rights of Russian speakers from a threat that was yet to materialize would have prompted Putin to absorb Crime.
Rather, Putin saw his calculation – that the Feb. 21 deal would be honored and that there would be an early election, in which either Yanukovych or Yulia Tymoshenko (whom he repeatedly described as someone he could work with even while she was in prison) – destroyed by implacable opposition, in which anti-Russian ultra nationalists played the lead role.
He must have believed that anti-Russian ultra nationalists would eventually win the ensuing battle for power since they were the ones who ousted Yanukovych and then would proceed to anchor Ukraine to the West. Hence, he decided to act while the chaos of late February presented an opportunity to do so in a way that would remind Kiev that Russia can dismember Ukraine if it tilts toward the West and would also allow him to score huge domestic points, which he needed as economy stagnated, by taking the land, which absolute majority of Russians strongly believe consider to be Russian.