Crimea situation mirrors Russia’s stance in Syria

Vladimir Putin's intentions in Ukraine should not be underestimated.

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Once again, Russian military hardware is on the streets of a foreign country, as the former superpower tries to defend an ally and secure its influence in a country that it is important for Russia’s projection of power. On the other side stands the West, willing to use diplomacy and veiled threats, but apparently unwilling to put in the necessary steel to face off the Russian threat.

If this situation sounds familiar, it is because what is happening in Ukraine today mirrors what is happening in Syria. Russia’s military involvement in Crimea shouldn’t come as a surprise to the West. The European Union and the United States have always wanted Ukraine to tip into their geopolitical orbit, but, as with Syria, they have sometimes appeared to want that result at a discount price.

The subdued threats from Barack Obama – the US president warned Russia of “costs” if its army continued to enter Ukraine – mirrored the West’s language over Syria. Talk but little action. Expectation but little effort.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, is a tougher and more ruthless opponent. Russia may have taken the deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich into its territory, but it wasn’t that long ago that the previous president Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned, with elements within Russia suspected of responsibility.

A man who happily sends advanced missiles to the Assad regime, even while the Syrian army pulverises cities, is not a man who can easily be threatened by mere words.

Emboldened by the prospect of this support, both Russian allies have seen protests against them as a zero-sum game. When protests erupted against Mr Yanukovich, he should have realised that Ukraine’s place can be both in Europe and in Russia. Instead, he tried to fight the opposition.

The same applies to Bashar Al Assad. Had he responded to peaceful protests early in 2011 with compromise instead of an iron fist, he – and particular ordinary Syrians – would not be facing the current bloodbath.

It may be that Ukraine can be put back on a stable and unified path. That will, however, now require decisive action from the West. Mr Putin has often been underestimated, but he is playing a long and brutal game.