There still remains the possibility that Mr Putin will take similar action against parts of Ukraine, such as the Crimea and other eastern areas with a high density of Russian inhabitants. One former Kremlin official has even warned of the possibility of Mr Putin adopting the same tactics used by the Nazis in Austria during the Anschluss, and ordering the annexation of Crimean territory such as Sebastopol, which is home to Russia’s vast and decaying Black Sea fleet.
Yet as Mr Putin weighs his options, he will find his room for manoeuvre far more circumscribed than it was six years ago when he orchestrated the Georgia offensive. For a start, the Russian economy, which has provided the springboard for Mr Putin’s resurgent nationalism, is no longer the powerhouse it was a few years ago.
In 2009, the last time Moscow squared up to Kiev, it simply ordered Gazprom, the state-owned supplier of natural gas, to turn off the taps. The move sent shivers through Europe, which relies on Ukraine as a transit point for its gas supplies.
But Gazprom, like the rest of the Russian economy, is far weaker than it was the last time the Kremlin threatened to turn out the lights all over Europe. A combination of America’s shale gas boom, together with a reduction in production from Russia’s ageing gas fields, has prompted its European customers to seek new and cheaper alternatives.
Indeed, this gloomy picture is replicated across Russia’s entire energy-dependent economy, placing the national budget under intense strain. To balance its books, the Kremlin needs a Brent crude price of $118 per barrel, a figure that has not been reached for two years. This has had an adverse impact on the value of the ruble, Russia’s national currency – a trend that will be exacerbated if Mr Putin initiates either punitive military or economic measures against Ukraine.
Nor, for all the Kremlin’s sabre-rattling, does Russia’s once-vaunted military pose much of a threat. While there has been a real-terms increase in the defence budget, most experts regard Russia’s armed forces as unwieldy and poorly trained, relying on equipment that is for the most part obsolete. A case in point is the country’s sole aircraft carrier, the 65,000-ton Admiral Kuznetsov, a Soviet-era rust bucket that can make the occasional forays to Russia’s naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, but would be no match for its more powerful US counterparts.
The weakness of Russia’s position will not, of course, dissuade Mr Putin from trying to reclaim a country the Kremlin sees as being part of the “near abroad” – ie under Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. You only have to look at Georgia, where the pro-democracy movement spearheaded by former president Mikheil Saakashvili has been replaced by a pro-Russian government, to see just what can be achieved. Russia’s SVR – the overseas intelligence service – remains a powerful and malignant force that has no qualms about poisoning Moscow’s opponents and secretly financing pro-Russian political parties. At the very least, we can expect Mr Putin to reduce – or attempt to reduce – post-Yanukovych Ukraine to a level where it can no longer function as a unified state.
That said, I have long believed that one of the West’s great miscalculations in its handling of the Syrian crisis has been its belief that, even while trying to halt the bloodshed, it must do nothing to provoke Russia’s ire. Yes, we should be wary of Mr Putin and his mafia state – but should we fear them so? Increasingly, I think not. Whatever retaliatory action it takes against Ukraine, we may ultimately discover that the great Russian bear is little more than a paper tiger.