When Obama recently described Ukraine as "not some Cold War chessboard", he seemed on a different page to the other players – notably Moscow's grand master Vladimir Putin, and most of the pawns and other pieces involved in the unfolding struggle inside Ukraine. And any attempt to carve up the former Soviet country's borders, creating a rump state by splitting Russian interests from those of the European-leaning, western section of the country, centred on Kiev, is likely to be messy and violent.
Understand this, and you grasp that the crisis engulfing the former communist country could yet descend into a far deeper abyss. The positioning of the pieces on the board – going on present media reports – suggests a workable political solution to an unsolvable geopolitical and demographic problem is far off, with open armed conflict and conflict edging closer.
The truth is that Ukraine and the Crimea has long been at a crossroads between great powers. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990-1991 and the end of the Cold War, the newly independent Ukraine has had its sovereignty continually tested by threats and pressure from the Russian bear, with the country's feuding politicians pushed and pulled between the lure of East and West.
Kiev and the European-leaning west of the country sought membership of the West's Nato military alliance and the European Union political bloc. Under Putin, Russia meanwhile has exerted muscular pressure to prevent membership of those clubs. While unable to prevent Poland or the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania from joining Nato and the EU, Russia fought a successful war with little Georgia in August 2008 in defence of Russian interests in Georgia, effectively preventing the small country in the Caucasus from joining the Nato alliance.
Moscow has regarded the lands of Eastern Europe as a vast geopolitical buffer zone for centuries – going back to the eras of Stalin, Hitler, and Napoleon before that. And centuries before that, the lands covered by Ukraine today were gamed over a north-south axis, with the Crimean Khanate buffer state squeezed between an increasingly expansionist Tsarist Russia to its north, and the declining Ottoman Turkish Empire across the Black Sea to the south.
The first rather obvious problem in the current crisis is that Putin does not take Ukrainian sovereignty seriously. Not content to cut gas and credit deals with now-deposed President Yanukovych, who he has regarded both as his poodle in the region and also an effective thug to manage Ukraine. Since fleeing Kiev, Yanukovych is now being pursued by corruption investigators, and has resurfaced in Moscow.
The second problem is what's next for Putin's bullying, subversive policy of maintaining a controlling influence over the neighbouring sovereign countries that the Russian president considers his vassal states (ie. ex-Soviet ones). Relying on a local poodle seems to have failed him in Ukraine. If Putin's strategy of informal influence has ended with the success of the Kiev protests that began in November and ousted Yanukovych in February, it looks like Russia is pursuing a strategy of formal control, including the use of military force and the occupation of territory, to satisfy its political aims. Russian troops are already occupying Crimea. A land grab of further sections of Ukraine therefore looks a very real prospect.
The next – crucial, deadly – problem is that in order for such a Russian land grab to work, Ukraine would therefore be carved up and dismembered in such a way as to make war likely if not necessary: both a civil war pitting pro-European Ukrainians in the country's west against sections of the ethnic-Russian population in the country's east; and a regional conflict pitting Kiev and Ukraine's western half against Russia and its supporters in Ukraine's embattled east.
Sevastopol, Russia's naval base on the Crimean peninsula has been a crucial strategic asset for Russian control of the Black Sea and influence into the Mediterranean for at least two centuries. The pro-Moscow Ukrainian governor of Crimea (a crony of Yanukovych) has reportedly given Russia "permission" to occupy the area – a decision hotly disputed by the new interim national government in Kiev. As noted by an analysis in last week's Economist: "Russian hawks have long wanted to annex Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula that Nikita Khrushchev transferred to Ukraine (reputedly while drunk)."
Britain and France fought the Crimean War in the mid-19th century to stop Russian power advancing across the Black Sea, fighting a campaign hinged on Sevastopol. Nowadays the naval base is an outpost leased to Russia by Ukraine, since the end of the Cold War when the Soviet Union's borders were stripped back to Russia-proper. Keeping its Crimean outpost, with its Black Sea Fleet, is vital for Russian interests in the region and further afield, like propping up nasty regimes, such as that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Russian troops, and many more groups of anonymous armed men wearing uniforms lacking any insignia working on their behalf, presumably either Russian troops or local paramilitaries (see photographs) are already, if reports are to be believed, in control of the Crimean peninsula, marked "C" on the below map.
Source of original image: The New York Times.
The second area of major Russian interest is in the much larger expanse marked "B" on the map. This area, like Crimea, is largely ethnic-Russian, unlike the western section of the country, marked "A" on the map. It is also the area that borders Russia, and is therefore closest to the bulk of Russia's military might. The region's Russian character – in language, ethnicity and political sympathies – is matched on the Russian side of the border by a desire to reunite it with the Russian motherland.
The biggest problem in any coherent carve up scenario of the Ukrainian chess board is that the pieces are not in the "right" places on the chess board. While the Russians might restrict themselves to occupying the Crimean peninsula, from their foothold at Sevastopol, the bulk of Russian strength is poised across the border with the remainder of Ukraine's eastern half.
The cities in the country's west remain under the control of the Kiev government. Some government, administrative and military centres are reportedly under siege from pro-Russian groups and protestors, though still reportedly in the hands of the Kiev government. To hold the line, Ukraine has mobilised its military forces, deploying units to defend key government buildings.
If Ukrainian government forces are to be displaced from swathes of the country's east, coveted by Moscow (in addition to Crimea, already considered to be under de facto Russian occupation), will that be by a gaggle of protestors or chased out by the strength of the Russian army crossing the border as occupiers; will the Ukrainians retreat voluntarily; will they fight? If some kind of diplomatic solution is not soon reached between Moscow and Kiev – brokered by belated economic sanction and diplomatic pressure from the US and Europe – the outbreaks of violence already witnessed will surely descend into a war.