1) Ukraine is not Georgia, the last country Russia invaded after regions with a significant Russian ethnic presence declared independence. Ukraine is a much bigger country, with a much bigger population, and a much bigger military. Georgia has 37,000 active military personnel and 140,000 active reserve personnel. Ukraine has 160,000 active, and 1,000,000 reserve. A war with Ukraine would look very different from a war with Georgia.
2) Putin plays to a domestic audience. Tweaking the United States is popular. Invading the country with which Russia has been linked for over 1,000 years to tweak the United States is not a surefire win with the home crowd.
3) As long as Crimea has not issued a formal declaration of independence (or, as Kimberly Marten notes at Foreign Affairs, sustained violence against ethnic Russians in Crimea), any lasting movement of Russian troops onto Crimean territory will isolate Russian internationally. As Ambassador Michael McFaul succinctly noted on his Facebook page, Putin and officials of Putin’s Russia have time and time again expressed the importance of respecting sovereignty. How are Russia’s allies in this regard (e.g., China?) likely to respond if Russia shows itself willing to invade its (other) largest neighbor? What will be the cost in terms of Russia’s relationship with the European Union? It is worth noting that the list of countries that currently recognize Georgia’s breakaway republics (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) as independent states is still limited to Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and Tuvalu; note the absence of a single other European or Eurasian country on this list.
4) Crimea doesn’t only have Ukrainians and Russians living there; they also have Crimean Tatars, who are not likely to welcome Russian rule for either historical or contemporary reasons. Moreover, the presence of the Crimean Tatars means that the fate of Crimea is likely to draw more interest from Turkey, which as of Thursday explicitly expressed a desire to see Ukraine remain a unified country.
5) What’s really in it for Russia? Say everything goes as best as it possibly could for Russia: Crimea secedes, Ukraine goes along with it without a fight, and Crimea eventually joins Russia. Russia gets some nice new beaches, but do they really want a Ukraine as a neighbor which now (a) regards Russia as the biggest external threat it has, and (b) has just lost lots of Russian-speaking voters? Wouldn’t that seem to guarantee a hostile Ukraine for years and years to come? And would another region of Russia with a potentially restive ethnic minority (see point(4) above) be worth that price?
This is not to say that things will not spiral out of control even if the major players don’t really want that to happen — see Scott Radnitz’s excellent guest post at The Monkey Cage earlier Friday — but just that we need to be cautious about jumping to the conclusion that Russian military intervention in Ukraine is imminent.
Previous posts on the recent events in Ukraine at The Monkey Cage:
Additional commentary from the NYU Social Media and Political Participation(SMaPP) lab not at The Monkey Cage: Tweeting the Revolution: Social Media Use and the #Euromaidan Protests