In a result known in advance, on March 16, the residents of Crimea, who include vast numbers of retired Russian army officers, voted overwhelmingly to leave Ukraine and join Russia.
Reactions in the Western World were also known in advance. The U.S. government and European leaders said they would not recognize the vote, and they did not recognize it -- or the subsequent annexation.
Angela Merkel suggested that Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, had "lost touch with reality." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused Putin of behaving as if it were the "nineteenth century". Barack Obama criticized Putin for "violating international law" and announced toothless sanctions on a few of his friends and one company.
But the sanctions imposed on Russia by the European Union and Western European countries are empty gestures. Putin knows this and treats them as a laughing matter.
Russian President Vladimir Putin treats sanctions against his country as a laughing matter. (Image source: Video still from "Ich, Putin")
The decision to suspend Russia from the G8 is essentially a sign of powerlessness. Sergei Lavrov said the decision was "not a big problem" for his country. An American columnist aptly said that suspending Russia from the G8 was "like suspending a vegan from a steakhouse".
Putin knows that Europe presently needs Russia more than Russia needs Europe
He did not go "too far": he went as far as he could. He evidently never stopped believing that the countries that were part of the Soviet Union had to remain under Russia's influence and that their integration into the European Union and NATO would be a mortal danger to Russia's survival.
He shows that what Western leaders call "international law" only exists if Western powers are strong enough, politically and militarily, to enforce it. He shows they are not.
If he thinks that it is necessary and possible for Russia to intervene in the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine, he will do it. If he thinks that it is neither necessary nor possible, he will not do it.
When Georgia moved closer to the European Union and NATO, Putin waited for the right time to act, and he acted. In 2008, South Ossetia and Abkhazia were detached from Georgia by Russian military intervention.
He knew that Russia could not afford to lose Sevastopol, its only warm water harbor. By annexing Crimea, he annexed Sevastopol.
He apparently considers that he has in front of him a weak and declining America. And the general demeanor of the present U.S. administration tends to prove him right. The United States seem in full retreat. U.S. military budgets continue to fall. For the last five years, Barack Obama spoke of "ending" the wars in which the U.S. was involved, and he depends on Russia's cooperation for further negotiations with Iran, for dismantling chemical weapons in Syria, and for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Putin doubtlessly thinks that Obama will not enter into an open conflict with Russia. Sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States are insignificant, and Putin has every reason to think they will not increase.
Putin evidently considers Europe even weaker than America. The way European leaders speak and act shows that he is not wrong. For decades, Western European countries relied on U.S. defense umbrella; none of them today has an army capable of doing more than extremely limited operations. Their foreign policy positions converge with the Obama administration positions. They all have deep economic and financial links with Russia and cannot break these links. The UK needs the Russian capital invested in the City of London. France cannot cancel its Russian warship contract without having to close its shipyards in Saint Nazaire, and without being confronted with major social conflicts. Germany could not survive long without Russian oil and natural gas. Overall, Russia provides thirty percent of the natural gas consumed in Western Europe. Putin apparently thinks that Europe will not enter into an open conflict with Russia.
The political part of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement will not change the situation in Crimea or Ukraine. The European Union has pledged $15 billion to Ukraine (but help hinges on an IMF deal). Ukraine must repay $13 billion to creditors before the end of 2014. As it will remain dependent on energy supplies from Russia, one week ago Russia said that Ukraine must pay off $2 billion it owes for gas. Ukraine is on the verge of bankruptcy. The current situation could lead Ukraine to full bankruptcy.
Putin has massed troops on the borders of Eastern Ukraine. He will probably decide to wait until the situation worsens and the impotence of the United States and Europe becomes even more obvious. He could annex Crimea without firing a single bullet. He doubtlessly thinks that he will later be able to do the same with the rest of Ukraine.
Either the West will stand up to Putin, and it will have to do it fast, or Putin will win. Obviously, Europe will not stand up. Polls indicate that Americans are turning sharply toward isolationism. Showing his view of the situation, Obama recently said that Russia is nothing but a "regional power", acting "out of weakness". Russia covers ten time zones and has borders with Europe, the Muslim Middle East, China, North Korea, and Alaska. If massing troops on the borders of Ukraine and annexing Crimea are signs of "weakness," by its evident impotence, America appears even weaker.
Several plebiscites have been held since 2006 in Transnistria, a strip of land between Ukraine and Moldova, and each of them has indicated a willingness to join Russia.
Estonia includes a large Russian minority, and Russian leaders in Moscow speak of the need to "protect" the Russian population of Estonia.
Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Ryabkov recently stated that the position of Russia vis-à-vis negotiations on a nuclear Iran could "change".
Rogue leaders around the world are watching and drawing their own conclusions.
Khamenei sees no reason to stop saying that America is the "Great Satan" and that Israel has to be wiped off the map. China sees no reason to hide its intention to occupy the Senkaku / Diyaoyu Islands. Last week, North Korea's Kim Jong Un fired six missiles into the sea of Japan. Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela reaffirmed its alliance with Russia and positioned Russian missiles in Caracas.
U.S. allies are anxious.
The West tried to attract Ukraine. But their present leaders did not take into account how Russia could react if Ukraine were seduced. They did not take into account that Ukraine is a special territory: for Russians, it is the land of Kievan Rus, the cradle of Russian history.
Ukraine is paying the price of their irresponsible attitude. The rest of the world can also quickly pay the price.
The world order built after the Second World War was shaped by America. For almost five decades, its goal was to contain Soviet expansion. In the late 1980s, the Soviet empire collapsed, and another phase began: an arrangement in which America would keep the peace and assure the survival of liberty.
America has apparently abrogated that responsibility.
If we do not see the Ukraine as a warning signal, we could quickly discover that life could now easily enter the state of nature in Hobbes's Leviathan: nasty, brutish and short.