Why I still don’t think Russia wants to annex the Crimea

RussiansCrimeaIt’s a risky thing, making such predictions in the middle of a fast-changing and frankly confusing situation, when we have reportedly a couple of thousand troops being airlifted into the peninsula and local premier Aksenov claiming control over all forces in the area (does he mean Russian ones too? I very much doubt it, or if he thinks he controls them then I imagine it means “he controls them so long as he happens to be telling them to do what Moscow wants them to do”). Nonetheless, let me stick out my neck and say why, excitable headlines notwithstanding, I don’t think Russia is about to annex the Crimea, let alone occupy eastern Ukraine.

1. Russia already ‘has’ Crimea in the ways that matter to it. Crimea has considerable autonomy, the Black Sea Fleet presence is guaranteed by treaty until 2042 if I remember correctly, and there is massive political and economic sway over this pretty autonomous part of the country.

2. If you are going to annex, just annex. Of course, the Russians could be hoping that Kyiv will give them the same kind of excuse that Saakashvili did in Georgia (though it is very unlikely the new government is likely to be so stupid/obliging), or await a formal request, but even then I note that the proposed Crimean referendum later this year will be about greater autonomy, not independence or a return to Russia. Putin is a great fan of quickly and pre-emptively establishing the “ground truth” such that others have to accept or at least negotiate on that basis. Then why not just bite the bullet? There’s unlikely to be a better time to establish a fait accompli.

3. After all, 2,000 troops is not much of an invasion force. This figure of 2,000 is by no means a hard one, but it’s nowhere near the kind of force Russia could easily push into the Crimea (where, let’s note, it already has some 2,500 Naval Infantry). There are something like a dozen military installations across the Crimea and while I don’t believe this is purely a defensive attempt to secure them, it is well within the parameters of what one could describe in those terms. After all, 2,000 troops = around 670 troops per 8-hour duty shift, = around 56 on average per shift per installation. This to me still looks more like a muscular political gesture than anything more direct. The 7th Guards Airborne Division is based at Novorossisk, a skip and a jump away, while if you feel you need security forces, Krasnodar is home to the 2nd Independent Special Designation Interior Troops (VV) Division and the  47th Independent VV Brigade, and indeed there’s the elite 15th VV Special Designation Unit ‘Vyatich’ at nearby Armavir. In other words, it’s not as if Russia couldn’t send a much more substantial force.

4. Russia has nothing to gain, everything to lose. Russia already has what it needs in the Crimea and there has been no evidence yet that the new government in Kyiv would challenge that. Annexing Crimea means that it can no longer use the peninsula as a political and economic agent inside Ukraine, and mean that Moscow takes on responsibility for the massive subsidies that keep it afloat. And, of course, dealing with the substantial ethnic Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar minorities who would be unlikely to take kindly to this development. It also makes this much more clearly a question of Ukrainian state sovereignty and would stiffen resolve in the country and ensure greater international support for Kyiv. Russia often doesn’t mind being the bad guy, but it doesn’t court that status wilfully. This is not South Ossetia or Abkhazia where–whatever the actual rights and wrongs–there was a genuine legacy of inter communal violence and political conflict, nor a fool such as Saakashvili to give Moscow the perfect pretext to invade.

5. What is Russia’s game plan? My view, and at this stage it can be no more than a guess, is that having given up on Yanukovych (they have to look after him, to convince other kleptocrats that Russia is a reliable friend, but they clearly are treating him as an former president, not a visiting head of state), they instead are fixing on making sure that Kyiv understands that it needs to consider Russian interests and on helping the eastern regions and Crimea win even greater autonomy for themselves within Ukraine. That way, the pretty dirty, Russia-leaning local elites in these regions can be Moscow’s agents and allies inside Ukraine, spoilers if need be, but Russia still has access to Ukraine’s markets and if need be can always use trade boycotts and the energy supply as further levers.

This is hard-nosed and heavy-handed geopolitics, born of Putin’s determination to maintain Russian hegemony in post-Soviet Eurasia and his belief that Ukraine is not a “real” country, but it’s not the realm of invasions and annexations. It’s a Clausewitzian use of if not war but certainly military force as a continuation of politics.

Of course, all this said let me add one pretty fundamental caveat, of which I am indebted to Simon Schuster of TIME magazine for reminding me:

Screen Shot 2014-03-01 at 09.24.43

In other words, I am indeed assuming that the Russians are rational actors, even if the sources on which they are making their decisions and the operating assumptions behind them are not necessarily my own. Putin would not be the first leader who, in the heat of the moment, acted irrationally, but on the other hand his track record to date is that, especially in foreign affairs, his is a pretty cool head and he tends to be risk averse. We’ll see.

An Obvious Postscript. I was, of course, wrong. But I was wrong for precisely the reason which concerned me, in my assumption that Putin and the narrow circle he still listens to would be rational about this in the same terms outside observers recognise. What has since become clear is that Putin today is not the pragmatic Realpolitician of his first two terms, but increasingly driven by an inchoate but nonetheless powerful ideological nationalism, a sense that Russian culture is under threat, a need to legitimise himself through grand (even if ultimately Pyrrhic) victories and an eye to his legacy. In those terms, whether or not annexing Crimea made sense becomes far less important, alas, than whether it was — to Putin — historically and politically unavoidable.

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45 Comments

  1. the Black Sea Fleet presence is guaranteed by treaty until 2042

    How secure is that treaty looking right now, though?

    Reply
    • Mark Galeotti

       /  March 1, 2014

      Well, we’ll see if Putin sends in troops. But in general terms, Kyiv doesn’t want to be the first to start unilaterally tearing up treaties; Russia could just as easily play the same game and call it a proportionate response…

      Reply
      • Hello, hello *waiving Budapest memorandum of 1994 in front of your eyes*. Russia, under false premise, broke that memorandum. US and UK, as other guarantors, are playing safe game. What this leads to? Any country could break international treaty under maked up premises. Welcome to the 21th where any country with capability will have the nukes. Is that what US wants?

  2. linoke

     /  March 1, 2014

    Personally I think they will just take it. Maybe not annex directly but Russia will make it work in their favor. Just like the USA with Hawaii, Grenada and many other places. Russia has nobody to fear! The United States are not going to do a whole lot if Russia takes action and the UN or EU are to weak to really hurt Russia.

    Reply
  3. Reblogged this on xamjad2's Blog.

    Reply
  4. I’m concerned that Putin will act irrationally, but what we have seen so far makes this a great article, looking spot on. Just have see what develops.

    Reply
  5. Very interesting. Thank you, and I hope that you’re right.

    There do seem to be signs of attempts to manufacture a Georgia-like situation – and that would be worryingly irrational.

    I wonder whether Putin would settle for the east and Crimea being given sufficient autonomy to gum up any chances of Ukraine moving to EU and NATO membership…

    Reply
  6. Reblogged this on Genius Politics and commented:
    Excellent insite on whats happening in Crimea

    Reply
  7. How do you see this ending?

    Reply
  8. I would say, russian game plan is war and chaos. Georgian scenario showed that clearly(

    Reply
  9. But what is the legal status of what is happening right now? If Russia doesn’t officially admit that the “mysterious gunmen” are Russian troops, do they have plausible deniability in case of a Ukrainian military reaction?

    Reply
  10. A fine, clear-headed look at the situation, especially about Putin’s track record of strategic thinking and practical action.

    But I, like Simon Shuster, worry that Putin has veered wildly off his usual M.O., and you gotta wonder what he’s thinking, especially after all the nice-niceness around Sochi.

    A couple of other worries: First, although it may be a small force in Crimea now, you don’t need a large contingent if pushback is weak, which seems to be the case there, despite the Tatar objections.

    Second: We (my Ukrainian wife and I) have just received news from Kiev that Vitali Klitschko has asked the Rada to annul the Black Sea treaty signed by Yanukovich. That, if passed, is not going to sit well with the Russians and would seem to be justification for any and all reprisals.

    Again, each one of your points makes great sense. And you’re brave to make them in the middle of this fluid situation, I only hope that your prediction of no annexation follows.

    Regards,
    LM

    Reply
  11. Russia has two serious philosophical challenges to address. Firstly, its avowed desire to reinvent its influence, to the state it was under the Soviets during their heyday, prior to the decline. Secondly, every act by a former vassal state or former ‘enemy’ that seems counter to the first point, is a problem to be stamped out. Russia is paranoid. When paranoia competes with an inflated sense of nationalism and entitlement, the result can’t be good.

    Reply
  12. Wars don’t cost money, they make it. Big problems require big solutions. What better way to address the economic problem than with a ramp up of arms dealing. It would also distract that general rumbling of discontent in the western masses. All the birds. One big stone.

    Reply
  13. Good perspective. It’s clear you’ve done your homework. It’s fifty-fifty on annexation, perhaps less on invasion in my opinion. One thing is certain, Russia definitely wants it.

    Reply
  14. Reblogged this on rovitothis201 and commented:
    Does Russia already have de facto control of the Crimea?

    Reply
  15. Towards the end of the Cold War a military planner named Nicolai Ogarkov came up with a plan for how the Soviets could fight and win a first-strike nuclear war. It was not important that this plan was idiotic to an extreme; that nobody would win in a nuclear war between the USSR and the US. What mattered is that the Russian military and political elite BELIEVED that they could. SDI threw a wrench into that plan and the rest, as they say, is history. Russia is quite capable of acting in a nineteenth and early twentieth century irrational way, and every nation which abuts Russia knows it. It could be that we are all in for some very interesting times. Nice article, by the way.

    Reply
  16. Reblogged this on Vegas Valley and commented:
    Opinion on Ukrainian-Russia Conflict in Crimea

    Reply
  17. 2014 will be a time of war. Sorry to say it, but all warnings are flashing red.
    USA is weak, Russia so strong. They compete badly in Syria and in Ukraine.

    http://wp.me/p3tGFm-4b

    Reply
  18. Russia is not rational. Putin is certainly pulling the strings. Sometimes people bite their nose to spite their face. He is watching our reaction so he can make the next chess move.

    Reply
  19. If you keep pushing, keep the pressure on, keep the initiative, other opportunities arise, such as (for instance) demonstrating that USA is not only unreliable, but powerless. The game is not strictly about Crimea, or even Ukraine. That is checkers. which as we all should know is not the Rooosian game.

    Reply
  20. Reblogged this on emilyaclayden.

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  21. I agree with your analysis but wonder whether this is the beginning of a ‘long game’ which sees ‘pro-west Ukraine’ becoming a small, western annexe, partitioned off? Crimea is a wise base from which to move north until the geopolitical shape is correct. Allowing exodus west to those who wish it, Putin may eventually lose little and at low social cost. I doubt that any military force could afford the effort of sustained and meaningful resistance if he chose to do so.

    Reply
  22. Well,i think Putin wants to resurrect the Soviet Union again,starting with Ukraine.His foreign policies are a guise to the sujugation of the Crimea.If the European Union don’t put a stop to Putin’s and Yanokovich’s romance,the unrest might excalate into a full scale civil war.

    Reply
  23. Reblogged this on str8tjury's Blog.

    Reply
  24. The West and the East, offsprings of the old roman empire; but still competing and fighting.

    http://wp.me/p3tGFm-5F

    Reply
    • Sovjet will be restored. That is Putins goal and also the goal of the Illuminati.
      They will divide the globe into 10 unions. Like USA, China, EU, African Union, Sovjet and so on. Then the Anti-Christ appear with his economic system; the mark of the beast. Nobody may buy or sell without this mark on the forehead or right hand.

      Reply
  25. Reblogged this on Ian Perrin and commented:
    An interesting read, much more detailed than the piece I wrote.

    Reply
  26. Very interesting stuff indeed! Although, I do believe that Russia is now holding all of the cards. There is very little that anyone can do to force Russia out of the Crimea, and states nearby – such as Poland and Moldova – have already asked for help from the West in the event that Russia should try and invade them next.

    Reply
  27. Reblogged this on 4t4m4t4.

    Reply
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