History tends to repeat itself (especially if its lessons are forgotten). More than 160 years ago, in 1853, war broke out between France, Britain, Turkey and Piedmont on one side and Russia on the other. In military operations that stretched from the Baltic to the Romanian Principalities and the Crimean Peninsula, Russia was defeated and withdrew its borders northward from the Danube River – but it kept Crimea, thanks in part to a historic defense of its key city, Sevastopol, against a year-long siege by British and French forces.

In World War II, Russian-ruled Sevastopol fought invaders again – the army of Nazi Germany – and was proclaimed by Stalin a “hero city,” its name carved into the polished stone of a somber memorial outside the Kremlin walls. In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had roots in Ukraine, transferred Crimea to the jurisdiction of the Soviet Ukrainian Republic, a declaration of Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood that had no consequence then for the region’s power politics. The consequence is enormous now, as President Vladimir Putin uses the Russians’ emotional sense of ownership over Crimea to win support at home for his seizure of the peninsula from independent Ukraine.

To Russia, Crimea is not only significant symbolically, but vital geopolitically. It is from Sevastopol’s naval base that the Russian fleet can sail to the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, extending Russian’s physical presence into the most important “table” of the international political “game” today. Crimea in Russian hands also becomes Moscow’s closest approach in southern Europe to countries of NATO and the European Union – just minutes’ flying time by jet from the Black Sea coasts of Romania and Bulgaria.

The political crisis in Kyiv that led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych certainly raised the question in Moscow whether a new Ukrainian government and political mood would respect and sustain Ukraine’s recent extension (until 2042) of Russia’s lease of the Sevastopol naval base. But was a Russian invasion really needed to secure that asset?  I would answer “no”. I am convinced that neither the new Ukrainian authorities nor the EU would have tried to interfere with that lease, recognizing the importance of Sevastopol for Russia.

Russia’s invasion suggests that it seeks more than to defend Sevastopol. Many analysts have noted that Crimea may become in Ukraine what Transnistria is in Moldova or Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia – a territory held hostage by Russian military power to constrain these ex-Soviet states from stepping away from Moscow’s orbit and toward the European community.

Too, perhaps, Russia hopes to transform Crimea in its entirety into a military base. Or it may be Putin’s way of compensating Russia (and protecting himself politically at home) against the “loss” of Ukraine as a pliant neighbor.

It is perhaps a lesson to us all who have apparently put the ideal of “Europe whole and free” on the back burner and who in recent years have declared with satisfaction that the continent has “never been so prosperous, so secure, nor so free.”

Whatever the mix of Moscow’s motives, we must hope that the independence and territorial integrity of new Ukraine will be preserved and respected by all, including Russia. Peace and stability in Europe are not a “given.” They need to be cultivated every day if we want to keep them.” 

Ioan Mircea Pascu, a former Romanian defense minister, is the vice chairman of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, and a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group.