In a recent discussion with a retired four star admiral, I was taken somewhat aback by his assertive response to a query about the unfolding events in Ukraine. Asked about the issue of Russia's longterm leasing treaty with Ukraine for the naval base at Savastopol on the Black Sea, my friend noted that "Anyone with serious military experience knows that, for the Russians, the Black Sea port issue is an absolute red line. No one in their right mind should be stirring up this issue, because it can be a war trigger." I was not surprised to find out that for Russia, the existence of their key naval base on the Black Sea is of supreme importance. I was, however, taken by the intensity of my friend's alarm at the unfolding events in Ukraine. In hindsight, I am sure that he is correct.
If anything, the recent events in Syria, which throw into question Russia's only port-of-call on the Mediterranean Sea, have made the Black Sea access issue all the more important for Moscow. Russia, for the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, has reconstituted a permanent Mediterranean naval presence. The Black Sea port of Sevastopol is a hub for this access.
While there is no immediate indication of any Russian plans to replay the events of 2008 in Georgia, where Russian forces moved sharply to curtail Georgian efforts to assert sovereign control over South Ossetia, it should be noted that the Ukraine crisis has greatly exacerbated tensions between Russia and the European Union–and some American diplomats, including neocon princess Victoria Nuland (wife of Robert Kagan) have been fueling the crisis further by demonstrably siding with the opposition. This American involvement was further exacerbated when a leaked conversation between Nuland and US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt revealed Washington cherry picking the members of a future cabinet–with no consultation with Ukraine's legitimately elected government.
For Russia, the opposition is more than a collection of pro-European Union forces. Among the most violent and active groupings in the Maidan Square in Kiev are groups with overt histories dating back to the pro-Nazi Bandera Movement of Ukrainian Nationalists who slaughtered tens of thousands of Poles, Jews and Russians during Operation Barbarosa. Those networks of largely Gallician ultra-nationalists were subsequently recruited to work for MI6, the CIA and German intelligence during the early decades of the Cold War. The fault lines in Ukraine run deep and only a patient, sophisticated diplomatic approach will lead to a non-violent ending to the current crisis.
It is in this context that the "heat of the moment" can dangerously impact the strategic red lines of Moscow. The issue in warfare or potential warfare is to always understand the factors motivating the adversary. The usual Obama Administration rhetoric about "democracy" and "Western values" doesn't cut it when such issues as the Russian Black Sea strategy are on the line.
In the view of Putin and some of his inner circle Kremlin aides, the Ukraine situation is nothing short of an attempt to stage a "regime change" in Kiev, leading to future efforts targeting Moscow itself. They do not differentiate between the Kiev events unfolding by the day with the continuing U.S. committment to European missile defense–which the Russians also see, eventually, as targeted against their second strike systems, and not against Iran's as-yet non-existent nuclear weapons arsenal.
At a time when U.S. and Russian cooperation is vital to war avoidance in the volatile Syrian and Iranian situations in the Middle East, and where a similar danger lurks in North Asia with North Korea's threats to declare itself a nuclear-armed state, triggering an arms race in that part of the world, Washington should seek a pathway for solving the Ukrainian situation where the outcome is not a zero-sum-game in which one side wins and the other loses. This current Ukraine crisis was triggered when President Yanukovych decided not to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, on the grounds that it would have wrecked the Ukrainian economy, which, whether you like it or not, is very much strategically tied to Russia's economy and Russia's supply of cheap natural gas. When Yanukovych broke off the negotiations with the EU, the Soros foundation and European Union-funded gangs took to the streets. Ultimately those protests turned violent and now, the ultras, including throwbacks to pro-Nazi wartime and Cold War groupings, have come to the fore.
It's a dangerous situation and one which deserves thoughtful input.