Until Thursday, the Russian military actions had been largely confined to asserting control over the Crimean peninsula, the largely Russian-populated area in southern Ukraine that took steps a week ago to secede and join Russia after the ouster of the pro-Kremlin government in Ukraine last month. A Crimean referendum, which Ukraine, the United States and the European Union have called illegal, is set to ratify that decision on Sunday.
But the buildup on Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia signaled possible further moves by the Kremlin to reassert authority by force over territory, also heavily populated by Russians, forfeited in the Soviet Union breakup two decades ago.
... In a further sign of a military buildup, Russian news agencies said the Defense Ministry had ordered six Sukhoi-27 fighter jets and three transport planes to Belarus, a Russian ally, to fend off what the Belarus president, Aleksandr Lukashenko, called a potential NATO threat. The Belarus deployment came after NATO sent 12 F-16 fighters to Poland last week.Russia is walking a dangerous line. Not because the U.S. or Europe will do much, if anything to intervene. As this article at the Atlantic points out:
Oleksandr V. Turchynov, Ukraine’s acting president, said in a statement on his official website that he believed Russian forces massed near the border were “ready to intervene in Ukraine at any time,” and that he hoped diplomatic efforts by Ukraine and sympathetic nations would “stop the aggression.”
In Moscow, the military acknowledged significant operations involving armored and airborne troops in the Belgorod, Kursk and Rostov regions abutting eastern Ukraine, where many ethnic Russians have protested the new interim government in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and appealed to Moscow for protection.
A day after a deputy minister denied any military buildup on the border, the Defense Ministry released a series of statements beginning early on Thursday that appeared to contradict that. They outlined what was described as intensive training of units involving artillery batteries, assault helicopters and at least 10,000 soldiers.
The operations confirmed, at least in part, assertions by Ukrainian leaders on Wednesday that Russia was massing forces. Amateur photographs appeared to show columns of armored vehicles and trucks in a border village called Lopan, only 30 miles from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. One statement announced that another 1,500 paratroopers from Ivanovo, east of Moscow, had parachuted onto a military base in Rostov, not far from the Ukrainian cities Donetsk and Luhansk.
Donetsk in particular has been a flash point of tensions over the past few weeks, with competing demonstrations by pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine supporters erupting in violence. On Thursday night, the first death was reported, as several dozen supporters of the interim government in Kiev were attacked by opponents during a rally on a central Donetsk square.
... Serious moves against Russia begin with tough actions against the corrupt oligarchs, Putin and his cronies, who run the show, and with severe economic sanctions against Russia’s weak economy. Those are doable—but only with the cooperation of our EU allies. And the Europeans have little stomach to do much at all. In London, where a booming real-estate market has been fueled by Russian billionaires buying houses and flats for up to a hundred million pounds (!), and where there is real fear that bursting the housing bubble will sink an already precarious economy, there is no chance that the Brits will crack down on travel by the oligarchs or hit them hard in other ways.The article goes on to explain that it is difficult for the U.S. to respond because Russia can interfere with U.S. interests in Syria, with the Palestinians, the Iranians, and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. In addition, the most potent way to hit Russia would be to increase exports of gas and oil from the U.S., but that would anger the greens in Obama's base. So, in short, there is little likelihood of the U.S. doing anything.
Throughout Europe, where trade with Russia is robust, economic sanctions would be painful—much more painful than they would be for the United States. Much of Europe also depends heavily on Russian oil and natural gas.
The Atlantic article also notes that the result of the U.S. not doing anything may be to embolden Putin:
Nonetheless, it is clear that Putin believes in power and power only. If there is no tough response to his takeover of Crimea, it will signal to him that there is an open field for further aggressive moves, starting with, but not likely ending with, Eastern Ukraine.It would be dangerous to Russia to bite off more than it can chew. It is one thing for Russia to adsorb the Crimea, where the population is predominantly pro-Russian, but it is a different matter for Russia to begin trying to absorb populations hostile to Russia. This is not the early 20th Century, when it was easy to isolate those populations. Today, such a take over will spark riots, protests and, eventually, guerrilla war and/or a terrorist campaign.
But Russia is, in many ways, backed up against a wall, and Putin may therefore take seemingly reckless gambles. I've cited before to David Goldman's writings concerning demographic pressures. I also came across an article at the Diplomat concerning the same issues as to Russia. It observes that signs of a resurgent Russia are, in many ways, an illusion:
... Russia is doomed over the long-term, and its short-term maneuvers aren’t enough to compensate for this fact.David Goldman argues that countries facing extinction take extraordinary risks, even suicidal risks, that from the outside seem illogical. It is a sign of their desperation. Russia's situation, and the lack of opposition from the West, may encourage Russia to become reckless.
Traditionally, Russian power has rested on four pillars: population, energy, weaponry and geography. Three of these are diminishing.
The backbone of modern Russian power has been its massive population. ...
... Yet like most of Europe, Russia has recently seen its population dwindle even as countries like China, India and much of the third world have seen sharp rises in their own populations. As AEI’s Nicholas Eberstadt observed in World Affairs: “... in the first sixteen years of the post-Soviet era, deaths exceeded births by 12.4 million.” Unless Russia can reverse this depopulation for a sustained period of time, it will likely become increasingly irrelevant in international politics.
Another source of modern Russian power has been its massive energy reserves. ...
The so-called resurgence Russia has enjoyed since Putin first assumed power has also been built on high energy prices. And like the Soviet leaders before him, Putin has squandered the temporary respite provided by high energy prices instead of using it to reinvest in the country and its people. As the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development noted gloomily in December 2012, “Not only are Russian exports highly concentrated in natural resources, this concentration has increased over time: the shares of oil, gas and other minerals in Russia’s exports are higher today than they were 15 years ago.”
It went on to reflect: “In 2012 Russia remains highly dependent on its natural resources. Oil and gas now account for nearly 70 percent of total goods exports…. Oil and gas revenues also contribute around half of the federal budget. ...[T]he oil price consistent with a balanced budget is now in the region of US$115 per barrel and rising.”
The problem with the Russian Federation’s economic model, much like that of the Soviet Union’s before it, is that it is only sustainable so long as energy prices remain artificially high. But, of course, energy prices are almost certainly going to decline over the coming years as a result of greater energy efficiency in the West, slowing growth in the East, and greater supply as a result of the energy revolutions being enjoyed in the Western Hemisphere and elsewhere around the world. And as goes the price of oil so goes the Russian state.
... Putin’s Russia has managed to maintain a modicum of global influence through the sale of its military weaponry. Although Russian military technology is greatly inferior to the West and the United States, it is sufficient to meet the national security needs of most states around the world. ...
This source of influence will also diminish in the years ahead. In some places, this will be because of declining defense budgets. In most cases, however, it will merely be because of greater competition from the likes of China and South Korea, the former at least also willing to overlook the moral transgressions of potential buyers.
Thus, over the long-term Russian power will have to come nearly exclusively from its prized geography. To be fair, the value of this real estate is increasing thanks to the increased importance of Asia and the warming of the Arctic. Still, this alone is hardly sufficient to sustain Russia as the major power it once was, and may someday become again.