Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoyed a year of stunning victories in international diplomacy. He successfully brokered a deal on the Syrian arsenal of chemical weapons that protected his close ally Assad from punishing international airstrikes. He humiliated the United States by giving former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden asylum.
But now he has suffered a stinging setback with the toppling of his Ukrainian pawn, President Viktor Yanukovych.
On Wednesday, Putin ordered large-scale military exercises in what many see as a show of force or possible prelude to intervention in Ukraine, something that has elicited a sharp warning from the United States.
Saying that Russian military intervention would be a “huge, grave mistake,” Secretary of State John Kerry also announced that the Obama administration was planning $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine and would consider additional direct assistance for the former Soviet republic following unrest that led to the ouster of its Russian-backed president. As Kerry rightfully pointed out, it would be hypocritical for Moscow to send its troops into another country after spending the last several years opposing foreign military action in places such as Libya and Syria.
Whether Putin is trying to show his deep displeasure or is really considering sending his troops into neighboring Ukraine — akin to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, which led to the occupations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — remains to be seen. However the tone of the statements coming from Moscow coupled with the military exercises should suffice to cause genuine concern in Washington, the capitals of the European Union, as well as on the streets of Kiev.
Putin is unlikely to be swayed by stern denunciation and hollow threats. It is imperative that the Western world makes it clear that, unlike as in Georgia — when it limited its reaction to mere condemnations — were Russian troops to cross the border into Ukraine, the U.S. and the E.U. will take concrete, real steps to protect the integrity and independence of a country that is of vital security interest.