OK, I will confess that my belief in Russian realpolitikal reason is beginning to be stretched. Until now, Putin has proven a very effective–in his own terms–high-stakes poker player, with a keen sense of when his opponents are bluffing. He has been able to use that to parlay a much greater geopolitical role than Russia’s actual political, economic, military, even moral resources ‘should’ command. Of course, in foreign policy chutzpah is a crucial, if intangible asset, especially when dealing with a European Union that is often disunited and uncomfortable with active interventionism (I have yet to see where the ‘Action’ in the European External Action Service comes in) and a US presidency that appears unable to take a strong line on anything that doesn’t involve drones. My assumption was that Russian moves in the Crimea were primarily a characteristically in-your-face way of bringing political pressure to bear on Kyiv to reach some kind of understanding with the Moscow-leaning elites of the East and also with the Kremlin itself, recognising that Ukraine needed to genuflect to Russian political and psychological concerns.
At the risk of sounding increasingly naive, that still may be true. We have seen this weekend a strengthening of Russian forces in the Crimea (notably with paratroopers from the 7th Guards Airborne Division from Novorossisk) and illegal pressure on the relatively few Ukrainian forces there. Further units have been mobilised on the Ukrainian border. Meanwhile, the Federation Council duly voted to grant Putin the right to send forces into Ukraine, but that’s never been a factor before, so perversely I am faintly encouraged by that, in that it smacks more of a political threat rather than a necessary prelude to war.
So conceivably, conceivably, there is still scope for a political resolution, one that will allow Putin to pull the boys back, claim victory over a cowed Kyiv and a hand-wringing West, and await the next well-meaning invitation to a “reset” of east/west relations. Let’s face it, the usual pattern is that one will be along in six months or so. After all, and this is something worth stressing amidst all the high-octane journalistic and political rhetoric, so far there has been no Russian incursion beyond Crimea, which while clearly a violation of international law, could be worked out.
And yet I wonder if Putin has over-reached himself and under-thought the implications. If Putin either is committed to taking Crimea or finds himself locked into that course of action, it will be an expensive, Pyrrhic victory. The scale and paint-scorching vitriol of Russian media and government rhetoric, the rentamob “defend the Crimea” marches, all this pushes the Kremlin into a position harder from which to withdraw. It has also radicalised Kyiv’s position–Ukraine has understandably mobilised as both political gesture and also practical precaution–and granted it sanctity in Western eyes. After all, let’s not forget that until very recently, while no one in the West mourned Yanukovych’s departure, there were also concerns about the political stability of the new regime, its links with right-wing extremists, the constitutionality of the deposition of the president, etc. Now, to acknowledge any of those would be tantamount to giving comfort to Moscow.
What, one might ask, is Moscow’s endgame? What does it want, and how likely is it to get it. The more it radicalises Kyiv, the less likely it is to get some wider political settlement. Instead, it might be forced to take Crimea if for no other reason than that it has to be seen to accomplish something, even if this is a pyrrhic victory, one which will only hurt Russia.
Here, after all, is the perverse and twisted irony of the situation. Strictly from a coldly logical position (and I am not advocating this, I should add), in many ways it is in Kyiv’s interests for Moscow to steal Crimea, and turn it into some pseudo-state or new part of the Russian Federation. Ukraine loses a sunny peninsula, but also a distinct drain on the state’s coffers (the Crimean economy is not great, and the region receives net subsidies from the centre). It sheds the most troublesome and Russophile of its regions, one which has been a turbulent locus of trouble for Kyiv for most of post-Soviet Ukraine’s history. It also gets concrete proof of the threat it faces from Russian bullying and probably accelerated and solicitous assistance from the US, EU, NATO, etc. It also validates every Ukrainian fear about Russia.
Meanwhile, Russia would face a storm of protest. Now, it has done so before and probably thinks it could weather this easily enough again, but this is not 2008 and Ukraine is not Georgia (not least as Saakashvili overplayed his hand and allowed himself to be needled into firing the first shot). Indeed, outside countries will assess Crimea 2014 in light of Georgia 2008. Of course we won’t see military action (though possibly enhanced NATO guarantees for Ukraine), but considering the example of the Magnitsky Law already present, I’d expect targeted bans and asset-freezes on officials, visa restrictions and even potentially targeted sanctions against Russian corporations. This is already being adverted by the likes as Edward Lucas and Michael Weiss, and I would imagine it would have a great deal more traction if Crimea were forcible wrested from Ukraine. There is no way round it, the most powerful weapon against the Kremlin is one targeting the elites on which it depends.
Putin is nowhere near as powerful at home, within the elite, as before. That’s not to say he has any clear rivals, or in imminent political danger, but any serious and sustained campaign to attack his elite supporters’ freedom to travel, invest, bank and shop abroad might well seriously affect this. Let’s be honest, so far the West’s track record in following through and maintaining such efforts has been questionable, but that doesn’t mean it cannot happen in the future, and Ukraine–bordering onto NATO and the EU, after all–might be the necessary cause.
So, common sense dictates that this is just an especially muscular and egregious case of Russian sabre-rattling, that ultimately they want Kyiv to cut some kind of a deal (and they’d accept something short of complete submission), and that taking Crimea would actually not be in Moscow’s interests. As the language toughens and the troops roll, though, it’s getting harder to believe that common sense is going to prevail in the Kremlin.