The question looming over Ukraine as its protest movement celebrates the triumph of scaring off President Viktor Yanukovych and his government is just how aggressively the Kremlin in Moscow might choose to respond. The early, albeit rather limited tealeaves are certainly ominous, echoing some of the Russian preparations for the 2008 South Ossetia War. For one, numerous outlets are reporting that Kremlin allies in parliament want to expedite passports for sympathetic Russian nationalists in Ukraine, where the east of the country is said to largely consist of ethnic Slavs who adore Putin. Likewise, six years ago we saw passports flow to Abkhazians for some time before Russian troops made their move.
More broadly, the rhetoric emanating from the Russian corridors of power provide some cause for concern. The state media is painting a picture of this political crisis as an existential national threat, comparing it to the Second World War and the fight against Hitler’s invading armies for survival. While a bit of bellicose on-air posturing from sympathetic outlets is nothing out of the ordinary in Putin’s Russia, it does help set the stage for some kind of military intervention if the Kremlin ever decides to go that route.
As for logistical military preparations for an actual invasion, there has been little besides a handful of sketchy reports of Russian naval ship movements, which suggests we may be in a bit of a waiting game here, with Moscow keeping an eye on Kiev and the infighting that has slowed efforts to move forward with a new government. Lest we forget, it was a financial shortfall that triggered Ukraine’s cozying up with Russia in the first place, with Yanukovych intent on securing $15 billion in bailout money. Now a motley crew of anti-Russian lawmakers will have to find a way, likely under the auspices of yet another I.M.F. austerity program, to come up with some $45 billion in essential spending for pensions and other programs the acting finance minister says is needed this calendar year.
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So even if some United Russia lawmakers and Kremlin officials want to see aggressive action in Ukraine, they might be wise to hold off a little while longer. Come September, sentiment for the European Union, even in western Ukraine, could have shifted profoundly, as there will likely be some resentment when the I.M.F. program kicks in and thoughts turn to the alternative: the short-term economic benefits of cheap Russian energy, not to mention cash. The challenge for this transitional government is simply to carry on the affairs of state and create an aura of stability that makes intervention less appealing. Harshly punishing former government officials, or, for that matter, capturing and trying Yanukovych, might simply incite Putin’s ire. The new powers that be will, of course, need to secure some expression of support from Ukraine’s security apparatus, because even if it pales in comparison to its Russian counterpart, the very semblance of resistance would complicate any endeavors for Putin, who is dealing with his own middling economic numbers, not to mention the massive cost of the recently-concluded Olympic Games in Sochi. Perhaps that’s the best hope for Ukraine’s democratic activists at this point: Russia, after dangling all that money and despite its fervent nationalist ambitions, is not in the ideal economic position to launch an incursion.