Charge of the shite brigade.
The obvious thing to do when confronted with what seems like a seismic geopolitical event is to look back to see if there are any comparable lessons from history. Problem is, we don't turn to actual history, we turn to our own version of it. More precisely, we often return to the comforting prejudices of the past and don't go much further. Hence instantly we have the Sun and others reaching to dust off the Cold War metaphors, not that they really ever dispensed with them when it's come to Vladimir Putin in any case. Those who were sympathetic towards Russia in the past are, unsurprisingly, sympathetic towards Russia now. Those who are big fans of intervention when we do it or think we should do it more often demand to know why those who criticise them aren't up in arms over Russia walking into the Ukraine with even less justification than we usually attempt to make. Those who insist Obama is secretly a peacenik despite having expanded the drone war worldwide in ways Bush never imagined think this is all his fault for drawing back. John McCain is, well, John McCain.
Combined, it can transform into a mush that leaves you not just none the wiser, but even more confused. When some of the aforementioned also have something resembling a point, it can obscure the actual events. The invasion and occupation of Crimea is a flagrant breach of international law; when though John Kerry says, without apparent irony, that you don't just invade another country on a false pretext, it's difficult not to snort at the lack of awareness. Understood as part of Putin's efforts to recreate the perceived strength and projected power of the Soviet Union with his Customs Union and proposed Eurasian Union, it doesn't come as the greatest surprise. Apparently unwilling to wait out another period of pro-Western rule as happened after the Orange Revolution, the wheels were set in motion with Yanukovich's sudden disappearance from Kiev, along with the withdrawal of the police. Hindsight may now suggest there was something in the offing, but more were concerned about eastern secession through legitimate political means rather than for it to be carried out in less than a week through the unopposed seizing of the Crimean parliament and the territory's airports.
If there's a echo here, it's more of the 2008 Georgia conflict than with anything else. Then Georgia was baited into action while the world's attention was on the Beijing Olympics, Georgia seeing South Ossetia and Abkhazia de facto annexed as a result; this time while Russia's eyes were on Sochi, the Ukrainian activists were unexpectedly finishing what's being called the Maidan revolution. Despite all the rhetoric then, and there was plenty of it, South Ossetia and Abkhazia remain firmly under Russian control. Any protests were swiftly forgotten about, and regardless of the increasing authoritarianism of Russia under Medvedev/Putin, relations continued as was normal.
At this precise moment it seems as though Putin has overreached himself. Not due to the response from our politicians, which has been equal parts hypocrisy, bluster and bellyaching, but due to the precipitous collapse in the value of the rouble, leading the Russian central bank to pump what it says will be an unlimited amount of money into propping it up. Putin's gambit will have been informed in the knowledge that central Europe is dependent on Russian gas supplies flowing through Ukraine, with the Germans while critical unlikely to immediately back sanctions. Not that we're going to either, as the half-wit with the briefing paper has informed the world. Take sanctions and asset freezing off the table, and we're left with kicking Russia out of the G8 club, something they'll clearly never get over.
The most likely end games, either the Russians withdrawing after a suitable length of time or the SO/Abkahzia option, are hardly going to affect us in the long run. For all the wooing that was being done, Ukraine joining the EU, let alone NATO, was more than 10 years away, and that was if someone with more credibility while still being pro-Russian hadn't turned up in Yanukovich's stead. We talk a good game sure, as the intercepted phone call between the US officials nonchalantly chatting about different opposition leaders and the uselessness of the EU made clear. We're amateurs though when compared to the Russians, who while being richer than they were but nowhere near as rich as us and who can project power while remaining relatively weak can act as they seemingly please. They can only do so though because we don't care enough when it comes down to it: if we had really wanted to intervene in Syria, we would have done; if we had really wanted to do something about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko we could have done; and if this really was the gravest crisis of the 21st century so far in Europe, then we wouldn't be rejecting using our meagre powers of influence.
Nothing justifies the invasion of Crimea, whether it be the apparent welcome from some of those in the territory to the Russian troops, or our own military adventures. Putin is of course the biggest hypocrite of them all, arming and supporting a brutal dictator in Syria, demanding that national sovereignty be respected, then acting as he sees fit within his own sphere of influence. This doesn't however alter the fact that after more than a decade of constant war, whether it be our own involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya (the last being especially significant as both the Chinese and the Russians felt they had been tricked into supporting a resolution that NATO took to authorise regime change), or the Americans deciding that essentially the entire globe is a battlefield when it comes to the war on terror, bombing Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia also, the bigger surprise perhaps is that no other country has taken it upon themselves to launch an intervention and claim humanitarian aims up until this point. As yet, there also hasn't been a single shot fired. Contrast that to our plan for Syria, which was to bomb a country already in ruins and hope for the best. Whether we learn something from this once it's reached a sort of conclusion or remain as ignorant as usual will also be worth evaluating in time.