By Ivo Mijnssen and Philipp Casula

International observers rubbed their eyes in disbelief Tuesday morning. After days of troop buildups at the Russian-Ukrainian border, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the soldiers back into their barracks. Everything was only a drill, Putin said, not connected to the overthrow in Kiev of pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine. Putin thus presented Western leaders who had called the situation in Crimea “the biggest crisis in 21st century Europe” and “the most serious crisis since the fall of the Berlin Wall” as irrational and overreacting.

In the preceding days, however, the Russian army had sent up to 16,000 soldiers into Crimea. Moreover, Putin had received an explicit authorization to invade Ukrainian territory from Russia’s parliament. Although no Russian soldiers officially invaded the peninsula, mysterious, professionally led and well-armed troops took control of most strategically and politically important institutions. They also surrounded Ukrainian army bases, many of which gave up their weapons more or less voluntarily, effectively forestalling all possibilities for resistance. The Russian side denied that these soldiers were Russian, calling them “local self-defense units” instead. The reason for this is that while existing treaties with Ukraine allow Russia to station up to 25,000 troops on the peninsula, they have to remain at their bases. Not surprisingly, a senior U.S. administration official claimed that Russian forces had taken “complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula,” a perception widely shared among observers on the ground.

Russian actions have effectively ensured that Crimea, which has the status of an autonomous republic within Ukraine, is no longer subject to Kiev’s authority. Russia thus meddled in the internal affairs of a sovereign country. Putin, in a news conference Tuesday, justified this intervention with the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian leadership and the threat to ethnic Russians in southeastern Ukraine and Kiev. Ukrainian parliament deposed Yanukovych after the killing of more than 100 demonstrators on Feb. 18 and 20.

In the eastern parts of Ukraine and on the Crimean peninsula, clashes ensued among ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars. In multiple cities, among them the Eastern Russian industrial center Donetsk, pro-Russian forces occupied parliament buildings. Unlike in Crimea, Russia did not intervene directly. In the peninsula’s capital, Simferopol, however, parliament elected a new prime minister, Sergei Aksyonov, after the aforementioned masked soldiers took control of the building and cut off deputies’ communications to the outside world. Although Aksyonov declared that Crimea’s future will be decided by a popular referendum on extended autonomy March 30, he has already taken the initiative: His government moved to establish a separate defense ministry and a navy, all in close collaboration with the Russians.

The fact that Russia’s takeover of Crimea occurred without any resistance has historical reasons. Crimea had belonged to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union since the 18th century. As a result of Russian colonization and the migration of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians to the peninsula, Crimea’s population is today made up of a Russian majority.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided in 1954 to award the peninsula to Ukraine, a decision whose background remains unclear until today. It had few consequences in the Soviet Union, where borders mattered little. With Ukrainian independence in 1991, however, the question of Crimea and particularly the Russian Black Sea Fleet stationed there, became extremely contentious. Conservative Russian deputies’ unwillingness to cede Crimea to Ukraine was one of the main reasons for then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s decision to shell parliament, which left hundreds of people dead. In 1994, Russia nevertheless signed the “Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances,” definitively awarding the peninsula to Ukraine in return for all nuclear weapons stationed in the newly independent country. Ukrainian governments signed two highly controversial treaties allowing the Black Sea Fleet and Russian troops to remain stationed in Crimea until 2042 in exchange for generous financial support.

For Russia, then, the fate of Crimea carries strategic, political and emotional importance. Ukraine in general and Crimea in particular are part of what Russia considers its “Near Abroad,” a term describing parts of the former Soviet Union with large concentrations of ethnic Russians outside of Russia’s state borders. Moscow clearly allots to the former Soviet republics a special place in its foreign policy, based on a shared history, common language and close economic ties.

Russia reserves the right to exercise privileged influence in its neighborhood, particularly when ethnic Russians are concerned. “The protection [of] these people is in our national interest. This is a humanitarian mission,” Putin said about a possible intervention in Ukraine. In Russian politics, one can thus discern an odd mix of emotional attachment and geopolitical assertion in the Near Abroad. After what Russia perceives as its period of weakness following the Soviet collapse in the 1990s, the leadership under Putin has insisted on this sphere of influence more aggressively in recent years.Ukrainian plans of signing an Association Agreement with the European Union were thus unacceptable to the Russians, who dissuaded Yanukovych from signing the treaty in return for a $15 billion loan and membership in the Russian-led Customs Union. The Russian political elite sees a Ukrainian partnership with the EU as a possible step toward NATO enlargement — not entirely without reason. In 2008, the United States urged its allies to offer Georgia and Ukraine a Membership Action Plan, but resistance came from the United Kingdom, France and Germany. Although Yanukovych shelved the plan of NATO membership, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO secretary general, reiterated after Yanukovych’s ouster: “We decided that Ukraine will become a member of NATO, of course, provided the country so wishes and provided the country fulfills the necessary criteria.”

What this purely geopolitical framework ignores, however, is the desire of many Ukrainians to become part of Europe, as a means of escaping the corrupt and dysfunctional political and economic system in Ukraine. At the same time, many, particularly in the Eastern part of the country, fear the human costs involved in adapting an inefficient economy to European standards. Ukraine is thus divided along regional and social lines. Nonetheless, few pro-Russian inhabitants in the country’s southeast actually want to be absorbed by Russia. Furthermore, eastern and western Ukrainians despised Yanukovych for treating the country like his personal fiefdom.

EU and U.S. policy toward Ukraine have been equally lacking in conceptualization. Leaders have condemned Russia’s intervention and supported pro-Western forces within the Ukrainian elite. At the same time, Western institutions have offered the nearly bankrupt country very little in terms of tangible benefits: IMF loans will be paid only if Ukraine imposes drastic economic reforms and EU membership is off the table. In a last-minute effort Wednesday, Western institutions offered Ukraine an 11 billion euro aid package whose conditions are as of this writing unclear. And although Western governments have taken symbolic steps such as stopping military cooperation with Russia and calling the planned G-8 summit in Sochi into question, they are unlikely to impose tough sanctions on Russia or even take military measures. Europe and Russia are economically and politically entangled and have too much to lose. Russia and the U.S., while not sharing close economic ties, depend on each other in resolving international disputes, like the Syrian civil war and the Iran nuclear program. Putin’s Ukraine policy has certainly made this kind of collaboration very difficult in the future.

The Russian president’s order to halt the “maneuver” at the Ukrainian border seems to indicate that plans for a full-scale invasion and annexation of southeastern Ukraine are off the table — at least for the time being. It is, however, equally unlikely that the central government in Kiev, which the Russian press describes as not only illegitimate but also “fascist,” will be able to reassert control of these regions anytime soon. This situation of insecurity provides Russia with many opportunities for future “humanitarian interventions” in case of further unrest or violence, particularly if it is aimed against ethnic Russians. At the same time, neither the separatists nor the Russian government seem to have a clear concept for a type of closer collaboration that would be able to soothe the popular discontent in these regions. Although Putin himself appears as a guarantor of stability for many ethnic Russians in Ukraine, the corrupt elites in Russia are equally despised, and Russia’s unjust political and economic system is not necessarily a model to emulate.

This geopolitical power play has left many victims in its wake. Relations between Russia and the West, which have been deteriorating for years, reached a nadir. Each side seem determined to assume the worst of the other. Divisions within Ukraine seem so deep that it is unclear on what basis any government in Kiev could be put in a position to reunite the country. Finally, it will be difficult to find an institution that can mediate between the opponents: The U.N. is deadlocked. Some experts hope that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe under neutral Swiss leadership may play a role. Also, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Paris for direct talks Wednesday for the first time since the beginning of the crisis.

The Ukrainian question has been turned into a zero-sum game in which Ukraine, apparently, either has to choose sides or face division. For countries like Ukraine, Georgia or other former Soviet republics caught between Russia and the West, it should, however, not be an either/or issue to belong to a Russian or to a European-led institutional framework. It should be possible to belong to both, because they cannot ignore either one of their neighbors. Additionally, the West should finally provide for a European Security model that includes Russia and does not assign only a secondary role to Moscow. Only this will induce the Kremlin to pursue a different foreign policy and change Russia’s image in the West, finally defusing Moscow’s fears of NATO and superseding Western Cold War imageries.

Ivo Mijnssen holds an M.A. in Eastern European history and sociology from the University of Basel, Switzerland. He worked as a researcher in the Swiss National Science Foundation’s project “Democracy and the Nation in Russia” and wrote numerous scientific articles on memory and memory politics in contemporary Russia. He is currently working as a freelance journalist based in Europe.

Philipp Casula holds a Ph.D. in sociology and is a research fellow at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He specialized in Russian affairs and political theory. Among his latest publications is “Sovereign Democracy, populism and depoliticisation in Russia” (Problems of Post-Communism 60 (3) 2013), “Identities and Politics during the Putin Presidency” (co-edited with Jeronim Perovic, Ibidem, 2009) and “Political and National Identity in Russian Political Discourse” (with Olga Malinova, published in Lecours/Moreno: Nationalism and Democracy, Routledge 2010).

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