For those who have been following the events in Ukraine, the reasons for Russia’s intervention are pretty clear, but they also point to what is likely to occur in the future.
Russia has always seen Ukraine as part of Russia. Henry Kissinger wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post: “Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then. Some of the most important battles for Russian freedom, starting with the Battle of Poltava in 1709, were fought on Ukrainian soil.” This doesn’t excuse Russian action, but it is important in understanding them.
STRATFOR has an excellent article on the geopolitics of the region. Geopolitics doesn’t explain or predict all foreign affairs but it is a very helpful theory in understanding the international order. In short, Russia doesn’t have a natural obstacle between it and Europe inviting invaders, like Napoleon and Hitler, who were defeated by over extending themselves deep into Russia, and by Old Father Winter. Ukraine is key to creating that space.
Sevastopol is what passes for Russia’s ONLY warm water port. It’s a poor solution. Turkey, a member of NATO, controls the Strait of Dardanelles. If Russia doesn’t get its Navy out of the Black Sea before war starts, it has to run the extremely risky option of trying to force the strait under fire to get to the Mediterranean, which has another choke point called Gibraltar. Like I said, it’s a poor warm water port, but it’s the only one Russia has that doesn’t need a slow icebreaker to exit during the winter.
Sevastopol’s importance alone was, likely enough, justification to the realpolitik world for Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Realpolitik diplomacy is based primarily on power, and on practical and material factors and considerations. Crimea was given to Ukraine in 1954 under Khrushchev, who was born three miles from the Ukrainian border and grew up in Ukraine.
If Russia had limited itself to Crimea, it is arguable that the West may have accepted it. No matter, Crimea wasn’t Russia’s only goal. You don’t put on an exercise of 150,000 troops all along the border of Ukraine and create demonstrations for Russia’s intervention if you don’t have larger goals. Crimea tested the waters for future Russian action, which became readily apparent.
There appears to be a “tourist industry” sprouting in Ukraine, where Russians travel to Ukraine to participate in demonstrations calling for a wider Russian invasion. Check out the New York Times piece on Aleksey Khudyakov, a pro-Kremlin Muscovite, and others who traveled to Donetsk “to watch and maybe to give some advice.” The Washington Post reports a similar phenomenon in Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia and Mykolayiv outside of Ukrainian Crimea. Who travels to a foreign country spontaneously on the eve of an invasion to “protest?”
Ukraine’s extremely measured response to Russia’s invasion of Crimea effectively removed “protecting Russians” as any sort of believable excuse for Russia’s invasion. The lack of dead bodies, along with the West’s increasing actions, is giving Russia pause. Don’t be fooled – Russia cannot allow for a truly independent Ukraine on its border. Besides the defensive buffer of space Russia requires geographically, Russia also requires an ideological buffer.
Ukraine is having internal problems because the people compare its experiment with capitalism to what exists in Poland. Poland has made a true transition to capitalism without the rampant corruption that plagues Ukraine’s attempt. It was the Ukrainian people’s anger at Viktor Yanukovych’s (deposed Ukrainian President who sought asylum in Russia) for rejecting a financial deal promising closer ties to the European Union that led to the riots in Kiev, and eventually got him the boot.
If Ukraine ever elects a competent leader who eliminates corruption it would be a direct threat to Russia’s “capitalism,” which is actually a KGB kleptocracy. Muscovites might realize laws are supposed to be the same for all and government official status contrary to the good old days doesn’t automatically equate to a summer dacha on the Volga. Putin cannot have that.
Putin will not let go of Crimea. After stating repeatedly that Russian forces are not in Ukraine, he’s steadily poured in more troops, going from 2,000 to 6,000 to 11,000 troops approximately every three days. The recent Russian decree facilitating nations to join Russia based on a popular vote is a flagrant Putin effort to re-grow the Soviet Union. The first key initiative by Crimea’s new parliament is a referendum to join Russia. Coincidence?
The West is disjointed. The knee jerk reaction of Germany was to delay sanctions and give diplomacy a chance. About 50% of Germany’s natural gas comes from Russia. The BBC reported that a senior British official was holding a document stating that London “should not support, for now, trade sanctions or close London’s financial centre to Russians.” The US, after years of stepping back from leading in international relations, is having a tough time assuming a leadership role. The international environment is sketchy with piecemeal initiatives being bantered about and hesitantly announced. It took four days for the G8 meeting scheduled in Sochi to have a “pause in planning conferences” to “planning has stopped” to the US won’t attend. That sort of “decisive” approach has a definite impact on Russian troop levels in Crimea. It raised them.
Yet, the West is doing things. The discussion of European sanctions got a quick and sharp threat of economic retaliation. Poland calling for a NATO meeting under chapter four (NATO members are allowed to call for a meeting if they feel threatened) got NATO under one roof for a while, and it’s the US’ turn to fly air patrols over Lithuania, prompting the dispatch of F15s to that Baltic state. Short of a major firefight in Crimea, or shots fired at a Ukrainian border post, it’s doubtful Russia will move farther, for now.
Rest assured, Russia will keep Ukraine destabilized. Maybe Viktor Yushchenko, the predecessor to deposed Viktor Yanukovych, will “somehow” come down with another bout of Dioxin poisoning…
(Featured Image Courtesy: Bloomberg)