Putin's Long Game
Anyone with good knowledge of the post-Soviet neighborhood and time to think things through should have guessed that Russia would have acted to prevent the interim government of Ukraine from decisively anchoring their country to the West. The separation of Crimea could be just the Kremlin’s first move in what Vladimir Putin rightly sees as a long game.
Disastrous Lack of Foresight
It goes without saying that leaders both in Kiev and Western capitals must have displayed an astounding lack of foresight if they thought that Ukraine’s interim government could steer the country toward the West and Vladimir Putin would do little in response, other than impose sanctions and rattle his sabre.
It was also short-sighted on the part of the interim government in Kiev to hope that of the Russian-speaking population of eastern and southeastern Ukraine would happily accept an outcome, in which a victorious coalition excludes their representatives, but includes ultranationalists; fires their governors, and passes a bill to cancel the status of their mother tongue.
The leaders of the interim government also failed to anticipate that Moscow would respond to ramblings in the south and east in ways that they would not be able to neutralize with or without support from Ukraine’s Western partners.
Russian diplomats have been lately criticized for restoring the Soviet habit of “whataboutism,” but I too cannot help wondering what would have been the reaction of 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 Western leaders have recognized an outcome in which a legitimately elected president of a West European country is ousted by what some describe as “rebels-protesters” rather than voted out or impeached? I guess these are all rhetorical questions.
I was also surprised how quickly some of the Western governments embraced the interim government after the deal that they themselves brokered between Viktor Yanukovych and opposition on February 21 collapsed, forcing the Ukrainian president (who, by the way, came to power in 2010 elections that observers of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found to be transparent and honest) to flee out of fear for his life.
I am not saying Yanukovych didn't discredit and incriminate himself through massive corruption, abuses and, use of deadly force against the protesters. And precisely because of these abuses he would have probably lost internationally observed early elections stipulated by the February 21 agreement and faced prosecution. As a result, the moderate opposition could have come to power peacefully in a democratic process that not only Western governments, but also Russia could live with. As I warned hours after the deal was sealed, it should be honored because the alternative could be ensuing chaos that would lead to disintegration of Ukraine.
But as much as the Western support encouraged Yanukovych's opponents, it is the latter that are ultimately responsible for prompting Russia’s leadership to spring into action. Vladimir Putin had remained observant as long as the most likely scenario was that there would be an early election in which Viktor Yanukovych would compete against Yulia Tymoshenko. 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 ultranationalists—Putin felt compelled to act.
And the interim government’s very first steps gave him an excuse, if not a plausible reason, to intervene. These steps did a lot to stoke worries of the Russian-speaking population of the eastern and southern provinces and nothing to alleviate Moscow's worries that Ukraine might first integrate first into West's economic structures, and then eventually enter into a political-military alliance with the West.
Military Intervention Can Not Be Justified and Will Not Be Without Cost for Russia
Of course, only a few expected that Russia would respond to developments in Kiev with a covert military intervention in Crimea that allowed the pro-Russian majority in Crimea to vote on secession from Ukraine. I did acknowledge such a possibility, but I didn't quite expect it to happen. I also thought then and continue to think now that a military intervention cannot be justified in absence of flagrant and massive violation of human rights.