Russia blitzed Crimea and secured control of the strategically important peninsula in a matter of days, followed by formal annexation. Now, Russia has amassed 50,000 troops on Ukraine's eastern border, where they are poised to strike deep into Ukraine proper.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be the geopolitical grandmaster as he is sometimes described. If he were, he would have seen that his annexation of Crimea is a colossal mistake. And further incursions into Ukraine will only compound his original error. Putin is single-handedly ensuring that Ukraine is irreversibly on a path to Western integration.
Ever since its independence in 1991, Ukraine has been a deeply fractured state. It has been divided between a western half with European aspirations and an eastern half that has looked toward Russia. As a result, in foreign affairs, Ukraine tried to straddle East and West by means of so-called "multivector" diplomacy.
It has also verged on being a failed state, with endemic corruption that has undermined social cohesion, economic growth, and political development. Ukrainians hoped the Orange Revolution of 2004 would lead to significant reforms to restructure the economy and rid the country of the scourge of corrupt officials.
Unfortunately, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, the leaders of the Orange Revolution, spent most of their energies fighting one another rather than enacting needed reforms. Also, their prime adversaries, Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, still had substantial support from Ukrainians in the east who were leery of the Western-oriented Orange parties. In a game of musical chairs, all three squabbled over posts and power, reforms languished, and Ukraine went nowhere.
Yanukovych was finally elected president in 2010, and quickly turned the country's government into a feeding trough for his family and supporters. But he maintained support as long as he pretended to pursue European integration.
But in November he rejected the European Union's proposed trade and association agreement, and the people protested on the Maidan (Kiev's Independence Square). And in February, when on Putin's advice he ordered his shock troops to begin firing on the protesters, they chased him out of Ukraine and replaced him with a new interim government.
Then in one bold stroke, Putin broke the stalemate that has bedeviled Ukrainian politics for a generation. By invading and annexing Ukraine's province of Crimea, he has united the people of Ukraine in opposition to Kremlin interference in their affairs. No major political faction in Ukraine supports Russia now, and the once Russia-friendly Party of Regions has been fatally discredited by the actions of both Yanukovych and Putin.
This revolution has been consecrated in the blood of the nearly 100 protesters killed by Yanukovych's thugs. There has never been greater popular will and support for finally setting straight Ukraine's messy internal affairs. Also, Europe and the rest of the world are, in fits and starts, beginning to realize Ukraine's strategic position and the threat posed by Putin's Russia.
By annexing Crimea, Putin has also removed from the voting rolls the one population most opposed to reform in Ukraine. With the loss of Crimea's pro-Soviet electorate and its unpopularity in most of the rest of the country, the anti-reform Party of Regions has ceased to be a major factor in Ukrainian politics.
Ukraine has scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections for May 25. A newly elected government will be newly united in its determination to change Ukraine's course. And after the bloodshed on Maidan, the public will not settle any longer for half-measures and petty political infighting.
Putin's incursion onto Ukrainian territory has done more for building national unity and solidarity than any single Ukrainian figure has managed since the days of the Cossacks.
The challenge for Ukraine's new leaders will be to use that solidarity to build a stronger Ukrainian state. And the longer Putin menaces Ukraine's eastern provinces with tanks and armored personnel carriers, the more he will strengthen Ukraine's resolve to defend its sovereignty.
Ukraine's NATO dreams are Putin's geopolitical nightmare. Keeping Ukraine in Moscow's orbit is the No. 1 priority of Russian foreign policy, and yet by invading and crudely threatening Ukraine, Putin has ensured that NATO membership will be the top foreign policy priority for Kiev.
There is a great opportunity for the United States in this reconfiguration of Ukrainian politics. By helping Ukraine get on its feet and resisting further Russian aggression, Washington can gain a strategically valuable ally in Kiev. Just as importantly, the United States can support a fragile but promising young democracy while demonstrating to the Kremlin that its foreign military adventures will ultimately fail.
Mark Nuckols is a professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, based in Moscow.
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