Russia Gambling That Ukraine Crisis Can Revert to Familiar Script
Thus far, Russian forces have only occupied the Crimean peninsula. While it is possible they will go no farther, it remains unclear under what conditions Russian troops would end their occupation. Moscow might decide to occupy the region for a while simply to pry various concessions from Kiev, such as a pledge to respect the rights of Russian citizens in Ukraine—the declared purpose of Moscow’s military move—or, more ambitiously, to secure guarantees that Ukraine will not join the European Union or NATO. But the Kremlin could best keep Ukraine out of these institutions by occupying Crimea indefinitely, since both institutions normally require that prospective members resolve all their territorial disputes before accession.
Crimea is indeed a distinctive part of Ukraine, with a unique ethnic Russian majority and a special agreement allowing Russia to have a major military base in its main port of Sevastopol. On Monday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered the building of a bridge that would connect Russian and Ukrainian territory across the roughly 3-mile Strait of Kerch, tightening ties between these border regions. Moscow could follow the same script Russia has employed in Georgia and Moldova, encouraging de facto or de jure independence for a separatist region, or potentially annexing the territory to Russia.
More ambitiously, Russian leaders might try to extend their Crimean model to other Russian-dominated regions of eastern Ukraine, such as the industrial cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk, by encouraging pro-Moscow militias to seize power and then sending Russian forces to help them secure and defend it. The Russian parliament’s authorization of the Russian government to take all necessary measures to defend Russian citizens in Ukraine is not limited to Crimea but applies to the entire country. In this scenario, the Crimea occupation might be seen as a trial balloon to test the occupation process or as a provocation designed to incite Ukrainian military action that would allow Russian forces to claim that they were acting in self-defense.
The Russian military has the capacity to execute any of these scenarios. In addition to the approximately 15,000 troops stationed in Crimea, which seized control of airports and government buildings with little difficulty, Russia also abruptly launched war games involving 150,000 troops near the Ukrainian-Russian border last week. Russian President Vladimir Putin today officially called an end to these maneuvers, but has reserved the right to use any means necessary to protect Russian citizens in all of Ukraine.
If both sides fully mobilized their armed forces, however, the Russian military would vastly outnumber the Ukrainian troops and would enjoy much superior combat equipment thanks to a modernization drive that followed the 2008 Georgia War. In contrast, Ukraine’s army is still largely equipped with Soviet-era weapons, while its navy and air forces are even further behind Russia in numbers, equipment and training.
Although many Ukrainians would be motivated to defend their territory, the loyalty of some officers and soldiers to Kiev is suspect. Even if no further senior officer defections occurred, the Ukrainian high command has suffered from rapid and extensive turnover in recent months. Even geography would favor Russia, since the Soviet military left Ukraine a military infrastructure designed to support troops fighting westward toward Poland and not eastward toward Moscow.
There is no reason to believe that NATO members, collectively or individually, would send their own forces to help even this imbalance. Western governments are considering how to escalate their diplomatic and economic pressure on Moscow in order to de-escalate the potential for any military confrontation.
The diplomatic gestures have thus far included canceling various meetings and joint projects with Russia, threatening not to attend the G-8 summit in Sochi and issuing collective denunciations of Russian actions. It is doubtful whether these acts alone will have much impact. Even a collective decision to boycott the G-8 might not induce Russia to climb down. Putin skipped the 2012 G-8 summit in the United States in part due to differences over missile defense and other issues.
The Western economic sanctions under consideration range from issuing visa bans, freezing Russians assets and stepping up assistance to the besieged Ukrainian government. But Western governments remain divided over which sanctions to impose. The United States has minimal economic ties with Russia, while Germany, the United Kingdom and some other major European economies have more extensive trade, energy and investment links that they are reluctant to renounce. Yet, without European support, unilateral U.S. economic sanctions would have little impact.
It is true that the financial and economic impact of the conflict on Russian and Ukrainian markets has already been quick and severe. Russian stock prices have fallen sharply, as has the value of the Russian currency. The Russian economy was already stagnating before the crisis, and now could slip into recession due to a decrease in foreign investment and increased outflows of Russian capital to safer markets.
Over the longer term, the Ukraine affair may undermine the Russian-led Eurasian Union project since other candidate governments may worry about suffering their own domestic backlash and ouster from office if they sign on to Putin’s scheme. Still, Russia is in better economic shape today than in 2008, when the Georgia War resulted in bursting an economic bubble and coincided with sharply falling global growth rates and oil prices. Despite the costs, Moscow has hung on to Georgia’s occupied territories.
The Ukrainian economy is more directly threatened by recent events since Ukraine must pay a small fortune to acquire Russian oil and gas and Moscow has suspended its plans to loan Ukraine $15 billion following the recent change of government. It is likely that the Western response to the current crisis will include increased economic assistance to Ukraine, but sustainable economic progress will depend on the new leaders being less corrupt and more competent than their predecessors. Ironically, the challenge of trying to revive the entire Ukrainian economy may prove the most significant deterrent to a Russian attempt to bring all of Ukraine under Moscow’s direct control—the price of any bailout is probably now at least double the $15 billion figure.
The Russian military is capable of remaining in Crimea indefinitely and could bring additional areas of Ukraine under Moscow’s control. But the most likely scenario at present looks to be the familiar script in which Russia seeks to exploit separatist fissures among the former Soviet republics to keep them in Moscow’s orbit, in the expectation that the economic and other costs will prove modest and transient.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.