Events in Ukraine have certainly become interesting the past few days with the use of unmarked Russian troops to secure military and political facilities in Crimea. Some seem to think this is a sudden lurch - the big, bad Russian bear leaping up to sink its claws into an ethnically/politically fractured Ukraine. On the contrary, this has been years, if not decades, in the making. And as recently as 2009, our diplomats in Ukraine knew where things were headed as evidence by this and other cables.
The thought of a seriously pro-Western outpost on its border is a non-starter for Russia and they last took action when Georgia got out of step. While some in the US, on the right in particular, jump up and down and want to revive the cold war, a more sober look shows that a) Russia has real interests in the Crimea, b) this did not just happen over night and was probably inevitable and c) the US probably would not act a lot differently were it in a similar situation.
Ukraine has some very large ethnic Russian provinces, Crimea being one of the most concentrated. This came about as a result of Stalin's forced cleansing of the Tartar/Turk population who historically inhabited Crimea. Since the the Soviet breakup, the muslim Tartars have been returning and are now sizable minority. This may give Putin some pause if Russia is considering a full out occupation and/or annexing of Crimea. It probalby would not take much to ignite a new Checnya and Daghestan. But the fact remains, the large ethnic Russian population prefers to be aligned with Russia than the rest of Ukraine (as do some of the eastern regions which border Russia directly). The political turmoil in Kiev has given them the opportunity to play up to Russian media (and anyone else who will listen) their "fears" of being repressed by the new western leaning central government. That one of the last acts of the Soviet Union was to make Crimea an autonomous republic further fuels the separatist desires.
Russia also leases the Black Sea port at Sevastopol on an agreement due to expire in 2017. What was already a tough sell even when their guy Yanukovych was in power in Kiev, it is hard to see how a western leaning Ukraine would agree to continue the relationship. In fact, this well could be the primary reason Russia is acting, using the humanitarian ethnic Russian story as a cover. Russia no longer has many levers of military power and this is one of the more important regional ones they have left. By grabbing Crimea now while there is turmoil, Russia avoids a more difficult and messier confrontation in 2017 with a Ukraine that may be entrenched with the west. And independent Russia has never been shy about the use of force in its immediate
neighborhood - here is a good capsule review. CORRECTION:
One of Yanukovych's first acts was to 'negotiate' a deal with Russia for a cut in natural gas prices in exchange for adding 25 years to the basing agreement. The opposition parties were against this deal and it is uncertain if they would/could try to invalidate it.
As to the west and the US in particular, the outrage over Russian actions is typical and reflects a short memory of its own actions, long ago and recent. The French have no hesitation to act in Africa as they see fit, even today. The US has had its share of invited and uninvited forays both near and far from its borders. So there is definitely a bit of hypocrisy here but that is par for the course in global affairs.
Of course, the fact that Ukraine has been independent since 1992 raises the question of what actions the US and its western allies could have taken prior to 2014. There have certainly been opportunites, though some have been stunted by the US own needs. Had the US made a more serious effort in Afghanistan in the 2001-2004 period, it is likely we would not continue to need the blessings of Russia for overflights of our military into Afghanistan. The same can be said of adjoining former republics aligned with Russia who provide air and ground access into Afghanistan. Had the US been out of Afghanistan by 2005 or 2006, what actions could have been taken to support the western leaning Orange coallition who took power from 2005-2010? What reforms would have been possible? Would things be good enough in Ukraine today that even the ethnic Russians would bid a fond farewell to Mother Russia? We will never know.
From a US strategic interest, it is important to remember that Ukraine, in the end, has little if any value. This is not a massive Russian assault on western Europe or soth Asia. Ranked #70, Ukraine is not even an economic interest for the US. And if the US wishes to continue to have flexibility in its own hemisphere (say, in Venezuela or central America), it can't make too much of a stink over Russia adventurism in their own backyard. Russian policy has always been about protecting the homeland (sound familiar?) and having weak neighbors as buffers helps in that goal. While the US need not condone Russia's actions, it should also not allow this to copletely derail US/Russian relations as there are many other areas of greater strategic interest in which we share common goals.