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Making the biggest gamble of his career in Ukraine, Russia's leader is holding most of the cards
The ultimatum from the Russian troops arrived just after sunrise on March 4. It was the third in four days: Surrender your weapons and swear allegiance to Russia, or else. Colonel Yuli Mamchur, commander of Belbek air base in Crimea, had sweated his way through two previous demands, but his Ukrainian troops were getting ragged and Mamchur was growing tired—and who knows? Maybe this time the Russians weren’t bluffing. So he called his garrison together and asked for volunteers to march unarmed to the Russian outpost in a gesture of peaceful coexistence.
This scene might easily have turned into a massacre; instead, after a three-hour standoff, a deal was struck for the detachments to secure the air base together. And soon after, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops massed near the Ukrainian borders to go back to their barracks.
The U.S. insists that Putin faces serious consequences for his actions in Ukraine’s strategic Crimean Peninsula, but for now, the Russian leader holds the trump cards: troops on the ground and the gall to use them. In the longer term, however, Putin has made an enormous gamble: Ukraine is now his problem, and a very large problem it is.