I've heard tons of theories over the last few weeks as to why Russia -- and specifically Russian President Vladimir Putin -- have invaded Crimea and Ukraine, but the comment that really sent me around the bend was that "no one could have seen this coming."
Because the open-source intelligence firm Stratfor saw this coming back in 09. Anyone with a brain actually saw this coming back about 1989 or 90 with the fall of the Soviet Union.
A little history. Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire from about 1783 on. It was largely ignored in the 19th century but became important again in the early 20th and was a founding member of the USSR before gaining independence in the fall of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine hasn't really been a country of it's own for very long, while there have always been nationalist movements, Ukraine has been at the least a satrapy of one Russian Empire or another for over 200 years. And it is a strategic region. Particularly the Crimea. It was for centuries one of the breadbaskets of Europe, much of Russia's wheat still comes from Ukraine.
Moreover Crimea has Russia's only year-round port and is home to the Black Sea fleet. Ukraine also provides defensive depth for Russia. Moscow is a bare 350 miles from the Ukrainian border -- which sounds like a lot, but is not, particularly given the speed of modern warfare -- with no significant natural barriers to invasion. Which means an Army is not limited to roads. It was the defensive depth given to Russia by Ukraine which allowed them to contain, and eventually drive back Germany in World War II.
So seen from that perspective, the move was inevitable. Russia has never truly regarded Ukraine as independent and would, under the right set of circumstances, move to take it back.
Enter former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, a Russian Nationalist, dictator and all around bad guy, but much loved of his people. He's been moving to reconstruct not so much the USSR as the old Russian Empire (with himself as Tsar) since he took office after ousting the Amiable Alcoholic Boris Yeltsin. He's had to reconstruct an economy, which is still shaky, and a military which is shakier yet, but more powerful than anything else in the region. Russia is not a resurgent Superpower -- yet -- but it's certainly a Great Power again.
Now enter the last two presidents.
Russia snaffled off part of Georgia under George W. Bush, mostly because we were over extended and distracted in the Middle East and, frankly had little strategic interest in Georgia. Putin knew it, Bush knew it, and both knew that Bush was unlikely to ignore provocation in Ukraine. While we allowed Putin's little Georgian adventure, we also made moves to strengthen ties with Ukraine and some of the other former Soviet Republic, gave a little military aid, and promised a missile defense shield.
These moves were enough to let Putin know where the line was and that we would not allow it to be crossed.
Comes now Barack Obama. He's seen world-wide as weak, and waffling on foreign policy. He doesn't appear to be really interested in it. Neither of his Secretaries of State has been particularly strong and he's gone so far as to tell Putin's Puppet Dmitry Medvedev that "after the election I'll have more freedom."
Our military is exhausted, demoralized and being cut not to the bone but through it. In short we're projecting not strength but weakness.
Russians do not respect weakness. Putin goes around without a shirt on all the time for a reason. Yes it looks ridiculous to us, but not to Russians, who see him as strong, virile and a leader. Certainly it looks no more ridiculous than Obama in mom jeans riding a bicycle with a helmet on -- and that image is replayed repeatedly all over Russia.
What it comes down to is this: When you are the preeminent empire in the world (yes, yes we're more hegemony than empire, just go with me on this) you cannot EVER afford to look weak. The Pax Americana which followed the Pax Britannia has relied chiefly, as such Paxis do, on the strength of the nation enforcing it.
We are allowing that strength to wane and the peace we have enforced will go with it. Russia is capitalizing on that as other nations will as well.
We must either move to reestablish the Pax Americana or be prepared for what will follow World War III.