CreditMauricio Lima for The New York Times
SEVASTOPOL, Crimea — With a single diesel-electric submarine and a hodgepodge of other aging vessels, Russia’s rickety Black Sea Fleet would be no match for the United States’ Sixth Fleet, based in Italy, which boasts the latest in seaborne military technology and has been running drills nearby.
Still, the legendary Russian fleet, whose headquarters have been here since 1783, is within a day’s sailing of the Mediterranean and remains crucial to the Kremlin’s ability to exert strategic influence in the Middle East and beyond.
Safeguarding this maritime muscle may well have been one reason President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sent armed forces to seize Crimea. But is it possible that the Sevastopol base is just the most concrete manifestation of Russia’s deep interests in Ukraine that the United States and its NATO allies either ignored or forgot as they tried to bind it more tightly with the West?
The annexation here, and the Russian troops still massed on the border of eastern Ukraine, seem a clear and sharp message from Mr. Putin that the future of Ukraine and the broader region, especially Moldova and Georgia, which are also being courted by Europe, will not be decided by the West alone.
“For 23 years after 1991, Russia has been treated consciously or subconsciously as defeated in the Cold War,” said Dmitry Kosyrev, a writer and political commentator with the RIA Novosti news agency in Moscow. “Russia has not accepted this mentality. We have something to say. We have not only interest, but experience. We are not a defeated country in the Cold War; we are something separate like India, like China.”
Mr. Kosyrev added, “Not talking to us, not accepting our point of view, that’s exactly what brought Europe and the United States to the crisis in Ukraine.”
The Obama administration and European leaders, of course, insist that it is Russia and Mr. Putin who acted aggressively and unilaterally, refusing to hear the view of Ukrainian citizens who took to the streets of Kiev in November after the president at the time, Viktor F. Yanukovych, broke his promise to sign political and trade accords with the European Union.
The contest for influence in Ukraine, long torn between Russia and the West, stretches back much farther than last autumn. It is part of a wider tug-of-war that the West had dominated since the fall of the Soviet Union, drawing into Europe’s fold not just former Eastern bloc nations like Poland and Bulgaria, but the ex-Soviet republics — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — in the Baltics.
Mr. Putin and many Russians believe that the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev had received assurances that the NATO alliance would not extend beyond a reunited Germany. They consider it a betrayal that NATO now includes the Baltics, reaching Russia’s borders — a point that Mr. Putin stressed in his speech announcing the annexation of Crimea.
“They have lied to us many times, made decisions behind our backs, placed us before an accomplished fact,” Mr. Putin said. “This happened with NATO’s expansion to the East, as well as the deployment of military infrastructure at our borders. They kept telling us the same thing: ‘Well, this does not concern you.’ That’s easy to say.”
Mr. Putin has been maneuvering for some time to thwart what he views as American unilateralism in global affairs, especially after what he has said were serious mistakes in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria. But only in the Syria case, Mr. Putin’s supporters say, did Russia gain footing, outmaneuvering President Obama with a proposal to disarm President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons.
In the case of Ukraine, Mr. Putin had been waging a battle for months to prevent Mr. Yanukovych from signing accords with the European Union,wielding a mix of threatened trade sanctions and the enticements of fiscal aid— precisely the economic tools that the West views as the preferred way to conduct geopolitical combat in the 21st century.
Last summer, Russia blocked Ukrainian imports at the border for stepped-up customs inspections, and issued a series of threats of debilitating trade sanctions. Mr. Putin personally conveyed those threats to Mr. Yanukovych, who ultimately told European leaders he could not sign the accords. In the contest for Ukraine, Mr. Putin thought he had won with soft power.
After protests broke out in Kiev in late November, and Western leaders moved aggressively to revive the political and trade agreements, Mr. Putin once again reached into his economic arsenal, offering Ukraine $15 billion in credit assistance along with discounts on Russian natural gas. By his view, the West had refused to accept Russia’s fair victory.
While it appears much of the protests in Kiev were organic, fueled by genuine public outrage against Mr. Yanukovych that grew in response to police brutality, Mr. Putin and the state-controlled Russian media portrayed the uprising as fomented and sponsored by the West.
In his speech last week, Mr. Putin suggested that Russia had been kicked around one too many times. “There is a limit to everything,” he said. “And with Ukraine, our Western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.”
Andrew S. Weiss, who worked on Russia issues in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and the elder George Bush and is now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Mr. Putin’s actions were logical, even if not compatible with Western interests, in seeking to destabilize Ukraine rather than allowing it to fall into Europe’s sphere of influence.
“There is a very straight line rational strategy at work here,” Mr. Weiss said.
Mr. Weiss also said that Europe repeatedly refused to hear Russia’s concerns, effectively forcing a conflict by insisting the trade deal with Europe was incompatible with joining Russia’s customs union, a trade bloc it formed with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Europe also resisted three-way talks with Russia and Ukraine.
“In some ways the E.U. has taken maximalist positions with the Russians and acted as if they were surprised that Russia took offense or got angry,” Mr. Weiss said.
Matthew Rojansky, an expert on Russia and Ukraine who is director of the Kennan Institute, a research organization in Washington, said that Mr. Putin was engaged in a broader struggle with the West for sway in the post-Soviet space, and for now seems to have grabbed the upper hand.
“In the long run, he may not win, but his opening moves have been very impressive, taking a fair amount of real estate on the board,” Mr. Rojansky said.