Pro-Russian Ukrainians on the march; they may not want Putin to come to their rescue. Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Pro-Russian Ukrainians on the march; they may not want Putin to come to their rescue. Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As we steel ourselves for the prospect of a war in Ukraine, perhaps we can avoid it by learning the lesson of some recent history.

In August 2008, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili claimed he was sending his forces into the separatist Georgian territory of South Ossetia because Russia had just invaded. His claim was quickly debunked, yet in a sense he may have been right: Russia had already intervened illegally, just not in the way he tried to sell to the world.

In the weeks leading up to Saakashvili’s ill-fated and ill-advised attempt to retake South Ossetia, Georgian officials had been reporting that unbadged troops and unmarked armored vehicles had been coming through the tunnel that connects the Russian Federation with South Ossetia. The Russians had also been building a base much larger than they needed for their limited peace-keeping force. The New York Times then obtained recordings of a border guard, apparently surprised by the nighttime arrival of a column in the 2-mile tunnel, a day before the Georgia assault began and in breach of treaty agreements.

There had also been a recent escalation of fighting around a group of villages that had remained in Georgian hands ever since South Ossetia first sought to break away in 1991. These villages cut off the road between the Roki tunnel -- meaning Russia -- and the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, forcing rebel militias to use dirt tracks in the hills. The Georgians were convinced the Russians were preparing a covert operation to support South Ossetian militia in seizing the villages. Once that happened, Georgian officials feared, Russian tanks would have a clear road to Tbilisi and the South Ossetians would parade captured Georgian soldiers on television to mark their triumph. Saakashvili’s career as president would be finished.

The precise circumstances of the Georgian war remain unclear even now, but something similar appears to be happening in Ukraine. It began with reports of remarkably taciturn and disciplined armed Russian-speakers taking over Crimea’s regional parliament; then soldiers in unbadged uniforms, supported by unmarked armored personnel carriers, took over Crimea’s airports; and now transport planes are reported to have delivered troops in unmarked uniforms to those same airports. Ukraine’s armed forces have been put on combat alert.

Nobody but Russian President Vladimir Putin knows exactly what will happen next, and perhaps not even him. My guess, however, is that the prewar Georgian scenario is being replayed. Russia has not yet invaded, although its parliament has given Putin permission to do so. It is adding troops to the already substantial presence it has in Crimea, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based. It clearly intends to assert full control over Crimea in order to undermine, punish and destabilize a new government that Putin believes to be illegitimate and a threat to Russia’s sphere of influence.

It is possible that the lesson Putin took away from the Georgian conflict was that the cost of intervention is minimal: Despite threats from the U.S. and Europe, no price was inflicted on Russia. It is possible, too, he concluded that Russia’s military can easily prevail. I doubt this, however, because Putin is a detailed student of the ex-Soviet space. Georgia and Ukraine are significantly different.

First, Ukraine is a nation of 45 million, against Georgia’s 5 million. Ukraine also has a commensurately larger armed force and was a bedrock of the former Soviet Union’s arms industry: It was the world’s ninth largest arms supplier in 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Second, while it is true that Ukraine is split between east and west, even in the east most Ukrainians are patriotic -- they may favor close ties with Russia and speak that language, but they like their independence. Crimea is unusual, in that it has a majority population (59 percent) that is ethnically Russian and believes the peninsula was wrongly transferred to Ukraine from Russia in 1954. Across Ukraine, only 17 percent of the population identify themselves as Russian.

The importance of Ukraine to Russia, and the undoubted belief among most Russians that Ukraine isn’t really a separate state but part of the same nation in terms of history and culture, must not be underestimated. It makes the situation less predictable and more threatening. Yet a war in Ukraine would be potentially catastrophic for Russia and Putin, in a way that invading Georgia could never have been.

Even in terms of Western response, Putin cannot be as sanguine as he was in 2008. Georgia had friends, but neither the U.S. nor a single European Union country had vital interests there -- despite an important oil transit pipeline. This is not true for Ukraine: NATO member Poland cares deeply about its neighbor Ukraine, and even Germany would find a Russian onslaught in Ukraine too close for comfort. Ukraine also remains a major transit route for Russian natural gas exports.

Moreover, Russia made explicit guarantees to safeguard Ukraine’s borders and sovereignty in a 1994 agreement connected with Ukraine’s compliance in giving up its nuclear arsenal -- something President Barack Obama reminded Putin of in a 90-minute phone call today.

Finally, 2013 is different from 2008. Then the price of oil had been climbing for years, and with it Russia’s economy and the revenue of its government. Putin was in an expansionist mood. Today the economy is stagnating, the oil price has fallen and is now flat. If Putin decides on a real military intervention in Ukraine, he will be gambling everything he has.

Putin is not a man who backs down, so it is all but certain that any Saakashvili-style action by Ukrainian forces in Crimea would be met with a full-scale Russian military incursion. Yet there is reason to hope that if Ukraine keeps its cool, he won’t roll the dice.

(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcChampion1.)

To contact the writer of this article: Marc Champion at +44-20-3525-8737 or mchampion7@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.