But by grabbing Crimea, Russia has ensured that it will eventually lose Ukraine. If Ukraine is allowed to proceed with elections in May, an anti-Moscow majority is all but assured since the Russian speakers of Crimea will no longer be voting, and the remaining electorate is likely to be radicalised by the Russian threat. The interim Ukrainian government has just signed an accord with the EU – the very development that Russia was striving to prevent in the first place. Despite the carefully engineered display of pro-Russian euphoria in Crimea, the territory’s disgruntled minorities – particularly the Tatars – may well resist incorporation into Russia.
A military move into eastern Ukraine would greatly increase the dangers of a political, military and economic blowback sufficiently powerful to threaten the leadership in the Kremlin. Western military analysts have no doubt that, in the first instance, the Russian army would swiftly overwhelm Ukrainian forces. But recent history suggests that, when the world’s leading powers resort to military intervention against a hostile local population, they almost always suffer a long-term strategic defeat. The swift conventional military victory feels great at the time – but is followed by long-term agony.
Mr Putin, who has lamented that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest “geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”, should know that “disaster” was greatly accelerated by the draining effects of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Even the mighty US – with the largest economy and the most advanced military machine in the world – was unable to win in either Iraq or Afghanistan.