It’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:
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.