The first point to remember is that Ukraine was for hundreds of years part of the Russian Empire, and then part of the Soviet Union after the Revolution. It has only been an independent state since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. A condition of Ukraine’s independence in 1991 was that Russia got to keep its naval base in Crimea. Moreover, the Crimea Peninsula, now occupied by Russia, was historically Russian until it was administratively passed to Ukraine during the Soviet period. Russia fought a bloody war with the British over Crimea in the mid-19th century.
Another point about Ukraine is that unlike most other supposedly nation-states, it actually contains a very large minority—concentrated in eastern Ukraine and in Crimea—of people whose native language is Russian, not Ukrainian. This is due in part to boundaries that were set after the First World War, and then reset after the Second. Much of what is now western Ukraine was part of Poland after 1920, and still has great cultural and linguistic affinity with Poland. After the Second World War, what had been eastern Germany was passed to Poland (and Lithuania), while at Stalin’s behest, what had been eastern Poland passed to Ukraine.
Ukrainian politics since independence has been a running battle between eastern and western parts of the country. Pro-Russian easterners controlled the country initially, but were displaced by the “Orange Revolution” of the late 1990s, which brought to power a fractious coalition of those seeking to turn the country more toward the West and the European Union. The Russophiles returned with the election of Viktor Yanukovich and the imprisonment of the popular Yulia Tymoshenko. In short, independent Ukraine has been highly unstable, and for highly fundamental reasons.
Here is where the most proximate miscalculations begin. Ever since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have pursued a policy of absorbing former Soviet client states like Poland and Hungary, as well as the three former Soviet Republics of the Baltic (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia). At the same time, Russia itself has been kept at arm’s length, as have Russia’s closest linguistic and cultural allies among the former Soviet Republics, Belarus and Ukraine. Suppose Russia and its kindred former Soviet Republics has actually been welcomed into Europe in those early, fluid years after 1991 and before the rise of Putin. Suppose NATO had declared, “mission accomplished,” and dissolved itself. We might not now be staring at a new Cold War.
Or suppose, alternatively, that the West (the EU and NATO) had kept their hands off the former Soviet client states, leaving the old Soviet sphere of influence more or less intact. The Russians would then have had less reason to feel threatened by Western expansionism.
Neither of those things happened, of course. The states of Eastern Europe (including the Baltic republics) were extremely anxious to guard their security by coming under NATO’s umbrella and to raise their standard of living by association with the EU. Both organizations obliged, thereby setting the tone for an adversarial relationship with Russia. When the EU then started serious talks with Ukraine, this could only have set off alarm bells in Moscow.
Yanukovich, albeit pro-Russian, apparently thought he could play Russia against the West, to Ukraine’s advantage. He could thereby also gain favor with the more Western-oriented population of western Ukraine. But he evidently miscalculated Putin’s response. Putin, worried by Western expansion into the old Soviet sphere, sought to safeguard the Slavic redoubt of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. He apparently demanded that Yanukovich renounce the draft agreement with the EU.
In this Putin miscalculated the response of the pro-Western opposition in Ukraine. He cannot have imagined that Yanukovich would be forced from power and replaced by a provisional government that was clearly disposed to bring Ukraine fully into the Western orbit. But, confronted with the unimaginable, Putin clearly felt he could only safeguard Russia’s interests by the use of force to assure continued Russian control of Crimea and its crucial naval base.
He correctly calculated that the United States and the West could do nothing militarily to oppose the occupation of Crimea, but he failed to take account of the serious damage that Western sanctions would do to the Russian economy, as well as the damage to Russia’s credibility as a power respectful of the sovereignty of the former Soviet republics.
The United States and the EU miscalculated by encouraging the resistance to Yanukovich and the establishment of a provisional government when in fact they could not protect Ukraine from the Russian reaction. The Ukrainian opposition miscalculated in thinking that they would be allowed to get away with splitting definitively from Russian hegemony. The Finns have understood for a century that there is a price they must pay for the simple geographic fact of living next to Russia. The Ukrainians didn’t get it.
The world is messy and complicated. It’s easy to miscalculate, and when multiple actors pile one miscalculation on another, the consequences are always un intended, and usually unpleasant.