Moscow is, needless to say, distinctly unhappy to see people power dislodge its ally, client and satrap-to-be Yanukovych in Ukraine. To be sure, as of writing he is still calling himself president and recanting his resignation, but he is powerless and I suspect his main choices will be between prison in Ukraine or exile in Russia (he can go join the Barvikha set, even if he has to leave his grandiose faux-galleon behind). But what options does Russia have in the face of this undoubted and, to the neo-imperialists in the Kremlin, traumatic reversal? Does its toxic public rhetoric of a “neo-fascist coup” really tell us what it is likely to do?
A military option? There is talk of a Russian military intervention, Georgian-style, perhaps predicated on ‘saving’ Crimea or the like, but I don’t buy it. The Ukrainian military is four times the size of Georgia’s and rather more capable of fighting a conventional defensive war. I don’t believe it would fragment; there are ethnic Russian Ukrainians in the ranks, yes, but I don’t see that as meaning that they are necessarily quislings. The military seems to have a strong service ethic and it would fight. Besides, not only would the international fallout be massive–and Russia is in a much weaker situation than in 2008–but quite whom would it be protecting? Even in Crimea there are substantial minorities of ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars, and a very different situation from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Unless the new government is deeply, deeply stupid and tries, say, to repudiate its agreement over the Sevastopol base for the Black Sea Fleet or allows inter communal violence to develop (and there’s no sign of that), then I don’t believe this will go beyond some sabre-rattling.
Economic war? Russia can not only withhold its promised economic assistance, which Ukraine can scarcely afford to lose, it can also be a bad neighbour in all kinds of other ways, not least by turning off the gas, as it has in the past. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some pressure exerted this way, from halting joint ventures to banning certain imports/exports, but I suspect the main thing will be a refusal to take on Ukrainian debts. Energy embargoes, after all, alienate, anger and alarm Europe and also cost Russia money, money it can’t afford to lose. It would also hurt the east of the country, especially the Crimea (which is currently the fastest-growing destination for foreign direct investment), risking turning the oligarchic elite against Moscow. Still, this will put the pressure on the US and, especially, EU to help out, and I hope they rise to the challenge.
Regionalisation. It’s interesting that even the Russians seem implicitly to be discounting Yanukovych and any prospect of his return to power. Instead, they are backing the demands in the east of the country for a new, federalised structure which would thus give greater autonomy to the regions in which its influence is strong. The east could thus stave off the ‘worst’–from Russia’s view–of Kiev’s changes and represent a political fifth column, or at least a spoiler, in the Ukrainian political system. This is definitely a plan B from Moscow’s point of view, but given Yanukovych’s spectacular failure in handling Euromaidan, it’s the best option they have left.
Good neighbour. Oh yes, Moscow could also turn over a new leaf, accept Ukraine’s new direction with good grace, even position itself to benefit politically and economically from the drift towards the EU of a country which, after all, is also closely integrated with the Russian economy. This would be playing to the long game, wrong-footing Russia’s critics by showing maturity, restraint and above all a willingness to see geopolitics as more than a zero-sum game, building on whatever positive capital was earned through Sochi. Eh. It’s certainly possible, but sadly, I won’t be holding my breath…