The Russian invasion and rapid absorption of the Crimean peninsula might seem like the spark ready to ignite a new Cold War. In fact, given the feeble Western response so far, the more likely outcome is not the division of Europe once more between NATO’s Western alliance and a neo-Soviet Russia, but rather the fracturing and ultimate demise of NATO and the Western alliance itself.
Of course, no one expects the West to use military force to protect Ukrainian territory, despite the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in which Russia, the US and the UK guaranteed Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for its relinquishing the nuclear weapons that remained on its territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet even the Russians now seem surprised, indeed somewhat amused, by how disunited and craven the Western response has been. Far from being isolated, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin’s very decisiveness has made him the most respected statesman in the world. So what comes next?
Having demonstrated to the Ukrainians with his Crimean excursion the emptiness of Western guarantees in the Budapest memorandum, Putin can now credibly demand that Ukraine either accept its status as a Russian vassal or cede more territory – starting with the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, which has a slight Russian majority (he can also exert pressure from Moldova’s breakaway region, Transnistria, on Ukraine’s western flank, which has operated as a Russian colony for the past 20 years).