Andrew S Bowen writes: In September 2013, Russia unnerved the Baltic States and several NATO countries by holding military exercises on the borders of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and in the Kaliningrad enclave that involved an estimated 70,000 troops. Earlier, in April, the Russian Air Force had practiced mock bombing runs near Swedish air space. The unease caused by these events — along with many others, including the resumption of a Russian Naval task force in the Mediterranean and international flights of strategic bombers — was considerable, prompting many analysts to remark on the Russian military’s resurgent confidence and capability. It was confidence and capability born of a massive modernizatsiia program designed to remedy the inadequacies exposed by the 2008 war with Georgia, and to create a modern, professional military capable of protecting Russia’s status as a great power.
Today, Russia is flexing that newfound military might in Crimea and on its eastern border with Ukraine, where it is massing troops and carrying out a series of military exercises. As the clock ticks down toward a referendum on secession for the Black Sea peninsula, fear is mounting about a full-scale invasion of the Ukrainian heartland — this time, involving Russian troops with insignias on their uniforms. But as analysts speculate about Moscow’s intentions, the question that led most observers to discount the possibility of a Russian takeover of Crimea remains unanswered: To what end?
The most likely answer is that the Crimean invasion — and the current military exercises along the Ukrainian border — is intended to signal to the new government in Kiev that Russia’s interests are not to be ignored. In that case, they would represent a continuation of Russia’s efforts to negate any incipient relationship between Ukraine and the EU that would threaten Moscow’s influence in the region. As my colleague and FP columnist Michael Weiss notes, “That’s why the Kremlin has created a shadow EU known as the Customs Union, which includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and whose sole mission seems to be keeping ex-satellites from being lured into Brussels’ orbit.” [Continue reading…]