War in Ukraine Would be Oh So Bad

One of the scenarios that could possibly develop in Ukraine over the next few days is outright war between Ukraine and Russia. Tensions show few signs of defusing, and “Will they or won’t they?” seems to be the big question at the moment. Of course, war is obviously the worst case scenario, for both Russia, which would further alienate basically the rest of the world, potentially leading to Cold War Part 2, and Ukraine, which would probably hang on for awhile but eventually lose.

Over the last several days, there have been the usual grumblings in the form of military maneouvers that world powers like to pull when they feel the need to express themselves. Russia has been massing troops at the Ukrainian border, and the Ukrainian government has announced that it will be holding joint military exercises with the UK and US (although the UK seemed hesitant to confirm this statement). Meanwhile, US Vice President has announced that the US is considering sending ground troops to the Baltics for more military exercises and has tasked twelve extra F-15 fighter jets to NATO patrols in Poland and the Baltics. However, rations promised by the US have been slow to arrive in Ukraine, and Obama has stated that the US won’t “be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine” and has made it pretty clear that America prefers the sanctions route to any sort of military engagement.

But this would [hypothetically] be a war between Ukraine and Russia. Yesterday, I made an infographic showing the vast difference in military ability between Russia and Ukraine. Some of Russia’s troops are stationed in its Far East and along the border with China, and small numbers are in the North Caucasus (stabilising South Ossetia and Abkhazia) as well as Central Asia. However, it’s still expected that Russia would be able to muster a significantly larger force than anything Ukraine could produce in the event of a war.

Although Ukraine increased military spending in recent years, administrations have typically failed to deliver the necessary budget required to modernise equipment and adequately train their conscripts. While recruiment numbers have been strong for the newly created National Guard, separate from the police and military, it is unrealistic to expect that these individuals would be fully trained in the immediate future.

The perception amongst Ukrainian soldiers seems to be that, in the case of a war with Russia, they will fight. At the same time, there seems to be some sort of expectation that the US will send military assistance.

History time. Prior to World War II, France and the UK had signed several treaties meant to protect Poland’s territorial integrity. In 1925, as part of the Locarno Treaties, France and Poland signed a treaty pledging mutual assistance in case of an attack by Germany. Meanwhile, in August 1939, Great Britain and Poland created the Anglo-Polish military alliance, which specified in a secret protocol that Britain was to aid Poland, also in the event of an attack by Germany. But when September rolled around and Hitler made his move, France and Britain were reluctant to send aid. The reality was that the governments of both nations had decided months earlier that defeating Germany was more important than defending Poland – that is, why waste resources on defending a strategically difficult position when those resources would probably be necessary for national defence later on in the war?

When I look at the current situation in Ukraine, I see echoes of Poland in 1939 (note: I am NOT comparing Putin to Hitler. I do not think that is an accurate comparison.). Justifying a war in Ukraine would be difficult for the US. Russia’s army is a formidable force – the US might be ranked #1 in the world in terms of military strength, but Russia is #2 and Russia would have the home field advantage. It would be much easier for them to move and supply troops than it would for the US, who would have to shift troops from Germany, Spain, Italy, and America. The US would have difficult penetrating the Black Sea stronghold that Russia has built, being forced to send vessels through the bottleneck of the Turkish Straits. In order to land troops and planes, the US would have to persuade its NATO allies to let it use their military air bases. Heavy artillery would have to be shipped from the US, and supply lines could take weeks or even months to negotiate. Russia has ample supplies of fuel – where would the US get the necessary power for its army if Ukraine’s energy supplies from Russia were cut off (which, in the event of a war, they most likely would be)? The US has spent the last 13 years at war in the Middle East and Afghanistan. There are still 40,000 troops in Afghanistan, personnel and equipment are tired, and the American public would most likely be unenthusiastic about another war, especially given the lack of overall achievement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Finally, as Russian TV host Dmitry Kiselyov pointed out, Russia is the only nation in the world capable of turning the US into “radioactive dust”. Russia has an arsenal of 1,800 nuclear warheads that are considered to be ready for use on short notice and a stockpile of 4,500 more. Many of these are intercontinental with ranges of up to 16,000 km, fully capabable of hitting the west coast of America or Western Europe. Since Russia and the US acquired nuclear weapons, became superpowers, and began to clash, they have preferred to fight proxy wars (see: Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan in the 80s, Nicaragua, etc.), since the alternative is basically to bomb each other into oblivion (apparently nuclear holocaust is preferable to losing). The closest that the US and Russia/USSR have come to war was during the Cuban Missile Crisis – an escalation which neither Putin nor Obama is likely to want to repeat. In World War I, global powers learned that upholding treaties wasn’t really worth the cost if they ended up destroying you, your enemy, and everyone in between. It’s unlikely that the West would see a nuclear holocaust as an acceptable price to pay for upholding the Budapest Memorandum.

Without US or other involvement, Ukraine is unlikely to be able to win a land war against Russia. Geographically, Ukraine is, like Poland, a large, flat country with few natural defences. Here’s a map (from 2008, but doubtful much had changed on the Ukrainian side, although I wouldn’t count on the numbers for accuracy) showing how its forces are distributed, taken from a Russian military blog:


Note that most of Ukraine’s military might is concentrated in the Western half of the country, a Soviet-era tactical holdover meant to defend against a NATO attack from the West. Now, here’s a map, also from a Russian military blog, showing Russian’s theoretical invasion plan:


Any invasion would (obviously) most likely come from primarily from the east, with contributions from the south via Crimea and potentially the north via troops stationed in Belarus. I’m sure the Ukrainian army would fight. Ukraine has developed quite a sense of national identity of late, and its troops supposedly have a strong esprit de corps. But Ukraine will lose. It will not have access to the fuel and human capital it needs to stage a convential ground war. Russia will throw manpower at the problem, as it always has. Ukraine has a history of nationalist guerilla warfare (whose dark side I will ignore here) dating back to WWII, and it is considered to be the most effective form of fighting against larger forces. Already, people in Ukraine’s east, which doesn’t even have the same partisan mythology of the west, are arming themselves in preparation for an invasion. It’s possible that the war could go the way of the Afghan-Soviet War, but not without a significant casualty count.

A Russian-Ukrainian war is literally the worst-case scenario for both sides. It is almost guaranteed to be long and bloody, given Ukraine’s spirit and tenacity in the face of Russia’s vastly superior conventional military abilities, and the rest of the world is unlikely to want to become involved militarily in any significant role to ameliorate the situation. War would further isolate Russia and exacerbate its paranoia about being constantly under threat from the rest of the world (which leads to it making “aggressively defensive” moves like the annexation of Crimea). Given the troop levels massed on Russia’s western border, conflict is a distinct possibility – hopefully, Western leaders will have the sense to come up with an effective, unified response to Russia (for example, introducing transparency to destabilize the concentrated Russian leadership, or broader, far more severe sanctions a la Iran in a worst case scenario) which will demonstrate that disregarding territorial integrity will not be tolerated in the 21st century.

Today I Made An Infographic

I couldn’t find an infographic that I thought truly showed the difference betweeen Russia and Ukraine’s military capabilities without just hitting you with numbers, so I made my own (hi-res version if you click). It reminds me of a really one-sided game of Risk (never mind Russia’s nuclear abilities). But I also think that visualising data in this fashion really highlights certain things. This graphic got me thinking about military spending. Russia spent $90.7 billion (4.4% of its GDP) on its military in 2013, compared to Ukraine’s $1.9 billion (1.1% of GDP in 2012) – and this supposedly represented a 24% increase in spending for Ukraine. So $90.7 billion buys you the second most powerful military in the world, while $1.9 billion buys you the 21st most powerful military. There is an enormous drop off in spending between “superpowers” and the rest of the world – and if even $1.9 billion, which seems like a relatively small sum in comparison, still gets you a fairly decent military, then what is military spending like in the rest of the world – and what are these superpowers spending their billions on, exactly?

Tomorrow this infographic will be used as part of a more relevant post.


What Putin’s Ukraine Strategy Says to the Rest of the CIS

As of yesterday morning (GMT), Crimea has officially been annexed by Ukraine in a rather showy and nationalistic ceremony in Moscow. There was lots of rhythmic applause and some standing ovations and a bit of chanting of “Russia! Russia!”. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has stated: “Russia is aware of its responsibility for the life of compatriots and citizens in Ukraine and reserves the right to take these people under protection” and it still reserves the right to intervene on behalf of these compatriots and citizens in eastern Ukraine. While Russia seems to be quite happy with its enlarged borders, the same cannot be said for the rest of the world, or even the rest of the CIS.

Remember 2008, Russia’s previous attempt redrawing borders with Abkhazia and South Ossetia? They were recognised by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Tuvalu, Nauru, Transdnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh (two of which are partially recognised states themselves and two of which are very tiny Pacific islands whose loyalties were supposedly connected to aid shipments and cash payments). Tellingly, they were NOT recognised by any of the CIS states, including Russia’s closest allies, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

What happened this time around? Well, Kazakhstan has been pretty unenthusiastic about the prospect of military intervention in Crimea, and Belarus has expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, yet Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a statement expressing support for the results of the Crimean referendum, calling it a “free expression of the will of the population”. These are Russia’s BFFs, and they’re staying pretty low on the radar.

The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is a loose association of former Soviet states, and they all have one thing in common – significant Russian minorities, a vestige of the days of the USSR. Here’s a breakdown (Georgia resigned in 2009 but they’re included for clarity):

Country Ethnic Russians
(% total population)
Number of Ethnic Russians
Armenia 0.5% 15,940
Azerbaijan 1.34% 119,300
Belarus 8.3% 785,084
Georgia 1.5% 67,671
Kazakhstan 23.7% 3,793,764
Kyrgyzstan 9.0% 419,600
Moldova 5.95% 369,488
Tajikistan 1.1% 68,200
Ukraine 17.3% 8,334,141
Uzbekistan 5.4% 1,199,015

In case that doesn’t get the point across, here’s a fun map, too. The red areas are regions where ethnic Russians are the majority. (Yes, it’s from 1994):

Look at Crimea. That area is RED – Crimea is composed of over 50% ethnic Russians. A lot of eastern Ukraine has red pockets, and so does northern Kazakhstan. There are a lot of ethnic Russians all over the CIS. But remember – Russia’s definition of what people are under its protection isn’t just restricted to ethnic Russians. It also includes “compatriots”, which in Ukraine seemed to include Russian speakers. The percentages of Russian speakers in the CIS states are frequently far greater than the percentages of ethnic Russians due to the Soviet influence. For example, although Armenia’s population consists of 0.5% ethnic Russians, in 2010, Armenia’s Foreign Ministry reported that 70% of Armenians could speak Russian.

Crimea is not the first time that Russia has intervened militarily in a former USSR state – Georgia in 2008 (resulting in Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Moldova in the 1990s (resulting in Transnistria) are prime examples. But Georgia has a population of 4.9 million and Moldova has a population of 3.5 million – both are significantly smaller than Ukraine’s 44 million people. Not only is Ukraine much larger than the other CIS states, but it also has a fairly powerful military and close ties to the EU. If Russia is able to step into Ukraine and claim Crimea via a referendum with, realistically, very little outcry from the West, then what can it get away with in the rest of the CIS?

Notably, the CIS states have been fairly quiet during the Crimean crisis, although most governments have issued statements supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity while not outright condemning Russia’s military presence – basically, staying as neutral as possible. Moldova has boldly stated that it does not consider the results of the referendum to be legitimate. The fact is, many of them see the writing on the wall. If Ukraine, with its actively cultivated Western ties, can be so vulnerable, that leaves them in very precarious positions. Many CIS states have few close allies outside of the CIS and are of little practical interest to NATO, the EU, and the US. At the same time, most of the CIS states have leaders who would be reluctant to cede power to anyone else – Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been in power since 1991 and was re-elected to another 5-year term in 2011, and Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenka, who assumed office in 1994 and is often referred to as “Europe’s last dictator”, come to mind. Both leaders have demonstrated their willingness to work with Russia thus far, but should their territorial integrity be threatened, their stance would likely change.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine make it clear to the rest of the CIS states that it is in their best interests to maintain good relations first and foremost with Russia and Russia’s supranational organisations. Fostering relationships with NATO and the EU that go beyond routine cooperation on economic and security issues have clear and rapid consequences for states that Russia considers in its sphere of influence. By and large, the CIS states are restricted by geopolitics and have no choice but to pursue a close relationship with Russia. But for those who may be considering looking towards NATO or the EU, the cases of Ukraine and of Georgia provide loud warnings that strategic realignment will not come without costs.

You’ve Been Sanctioned

On 17 March, the US and EU sanctioned a few Russians, a few Ukrainaians, and a few Crimeans over the security situation in Crimea. These new sanctions are viewed as an extension of the 6 March sanctions, which apparently terrifed Putin so much that he decided to go ahead with the Crimea referendum anyway. And the new ones are even more frightening, so Russian press is reporting that Russia is going to proceed with the annexation of Crimea tomorrow anyway.

This latest round of sanctions blocks “all property and interests in property” of these individuals in the US, and also bans them from entering the US. The individuals who were sanctioned are high-ranking officials, but not the highest. Wealthy – but not the wealthiest. So it’s no surprise that Russia doesn’t seem too perturbed. Here’s a breakdown:

The Russians:

Vladislav Surkov, Presidential Aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin: Surkov is kind of like Putin’s Karl Rove. Supposedly considered Putin’s “chief ideologist“, he coined the phrase “sovereign democracy” and has been described as a “puppet master” but was forced to resign in May 2013 after failing to anticipate the anti-Putin protests of 2011 and 2012. He was reappointed in September to deal with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Sergey Glazyev, Presidential Adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin: Glazyev, an economist by trade, consistently argued that Ukraine had more options than just the EU during the course of his work of developing the Eurasian Customs Union. However, in early February, he called for force to be used to disperse the protestors in the Maidan.

Leonid Slutsky, State Duma Deputy: Slutsky is the chairman of the Duma Committee on Commonwealth of Independent States, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots. Slutsky has been outspoken in his support for Russia’s actions in Crimea.

Andrei Klishas, Chairman of the Federation Council Committee of Constitutional Law, Judicial, and Legal Affairs, and the Development of Civil Society: Klishas is a businessman and politician. He was appointed to the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation in 2012. Klishas was the author of a bill in early March that would allow Russia to seize Western property and assets if sanctions were imposed on Russia, stating that the bill “would offer the president and government opportunities to defend our sovereignty from threats.”

Valentina Matviyenko, Head of the Federation Council: Matviyenko is the highest-ranking female politician in Russia, and the first female speaker of the Federation Council. As governor of St. Petersburg, Matviyenko was a divisive figure and was elected to the Federation Council in 2011. Matviyenko has supported Crimea assuming a place in the Russian Federation and has been one of the Russian politicians to note that the government in Kyiv is operating without a mandate.

Dmitry Rogozin, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation: As Russia’s NATO ambassador from 2008-2011, Rogozin established himself as an extremely outspoken “troublemaker”, especially on issues regarding the integration of Georgia and Ukraine. He also created quite the Twitter presence, sending this New Year’s message to NATO last year. Last week, Rogozin claimed that sanctions would only serve to stimulate the Russian economy.

Yelena Mizulina, State Duma Deputy: The head of the Committee on Family, Women and Children, Mizulina is known as Putin’s “morality crusader”. She is espcially well-known for spearheading the effort to ban homosexual “propaganda”. Her inclusion on the sanctions list is probably due to her authorship of a bill last month that would allow Ukrainians to receive expedited Russian citizenship.

The Crimeans:

Sergey Aksyonov, Crimea’s new Prime Minister: Aksyonov is on the list for “threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for undermining Ukraine’s democratic institutions and processes”. He comes from a line of Red Army officers and was on his way to becoming one himself when the whole thing fell apart. So instead, he supposedly became a member of a small-time gang that engaged in extortion rackets, where his nickname was “the Goblin”. Aksyonov entered politics in 2008 and developed the Russian Unity party, an amalgam of three Crimean pro-Russia parties. On 27 February, Aksyonov was elected Prime Minister of Crimea in the presence of masked gunmen.

Vladimir Konstantinov, speaker of the Crimean Parliament: Konstantinov is on the list for the same reasons as Aksyonov. Konstantinov’s construction business owes larges sums to Russian and Ukrainian banks.

The Ukrainians:

Viktor Medvedchuk: Medvedchuk, leader of Ukrainian Choice, is being designated for threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for undermining Ukraine’s democratic institutions and processes. Medvedchuk is an oligarch and lawyer, as well as the head of the pro-Russian organisation Ukrainian Choice. Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter, and The Moscow Times called him “Putin’s personal agent for influencing the situation in Ukraine.” Medvedchuk has been closely linked to Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko.

Viktor Yanukovych: Yanukovych is being sanctioned for the same reasons as Medvedchuk. Yanukovych fled Ukraine on 22 February and has since been replaced by an interim government. Yanukovych reportedly requested Russia’s help in the form of military intervention to protect Ukrainian citizens. Since his disappearance from Ukraine and reappearance in Russia, Yanukovych has only been heard from sporadically via press conference (the last time on 11 March).

Russia’s reaction to the list of sanctions was to basically laugh at it. Dmitry Rogozin tweeted “Comrade @BarackObama, what should do those who have neither accounts nor property abroad? Or U didn’t think about it?)” and “I think some prankster prepared the draft of this Act of the US President)“. Meanwhile, Surkov was quoted as saying: “‘I don’t have accounts abroad. The only things that interest me in the US are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don’t need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing.” The reality, of course, is that most of these people really don’t care. Last year, Russia passed a law prohibiting officials from possessing foreign assets as part of anti-corruption measures. The law was also said to be in the interests of national security – if officials do not have accounts abroad, then those accounts can not be used to pressure them (as in this case, with sanctions). By sanctioning Russian officials, the US and EU are demonstrating to those Russians who may still have holdings abroad exactly why they should move their assets back home, proving to them that Putin was right all along. In effect, the West is actually enforcing Russian policy.

So while sanctioning Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean officials is a lovely symbolic gesture, it’s important to also look at who you’re sanctioning and whether or not those sanctions will have any effect other than to cause people to literally laugh at you. Sanctioning Russian companies, like Gazprom and Rosneft for example, would have a much greater economic effect on Russia, although it would not be entirely practical for the US and EU. In the meantime, Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation has composed a much more comprehensive list of people who could be effectively targeted by sanctions (most of whom are not included on the very brief US list).

So Putin Says Crimea is Independent. Now What?

Yesterday, Crimea voted for its future. The numbers were Soviet-like. As expected, voter turnout was high, well over the 50% that Crimea needed to make the referendum legal – or about as close to legal as they were going to get – and nearly 97% of voters voted in favour of secession. Of course, this was more or less the predicted result, and no one was surprised.

Today, Vladimir Putin has officially recognised the independence of Crimea in a presidential decree. It basically says that the Crimean people expressed their will in an all-Crimean referendum and so now it will immediately recognise Crimea as a sovereign and independent state, with Sevastopol (where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based) having some sort of unspecified special status (maybe it will become a closed city again).

And of course, the question once again is: now what? After a night of partying, Crimeans have been plunged into uncertainty on numerous levels. Credit card machines in cafes no longer work, and supposedly the ruble will become the new official currency in April. Crimeans, banks included, don’t seem to know what will happen to their money in hryvnias (Ukraine’s currency). Crimea receives all of its energy, gas, and water from mainland Ukraine – that arrangement is bound to fall apart if Crimea becomes a part of Russia. While Russia has been talking about building a bridge across the Kerch Strait, that wouldn’t be completed until at least 2015.

So, Putin’s options. (Some of these may seem familiar from my previous post on Crimea, because really, nothing’s changed. We all knew what would happen with the referendum.)

Option 1: Since Crimea has been recognised as independent by Russia, it could go the route of South Ossetia/Abkhazia and remain “independent” (and more or less leech off of Russia). This is highly unlikely because Crimea would have a great deal of trouble achieving widespread international recognition and would therefore be limited in the scope of its economic activitied and dependent on Russia. After the 2008 war with Georgia, Russia funnelled huge sums into trying to make South Ossetia and Abkhazia into functional states with little effect largely due to corruption. Can Russia afford to build bridges (literally) and new power/water infrastructure, while propping up Crimea’s pensioners and attempting to adapt Crimea’s institutions to fit into Russia’s standards? It’s unlikely.

Option 2: The annexation option. By recognising Crimea as independent, Putin paves the way for this to happen. Sort of. Obviously it is still a situation laden with complications, but to Russia, at least, they can now legally make Crimea a part of the federation. Option 2 carries many of the same problems as Option 1, but at least there is the opportunity for Crimea to participate in the global economy as a part of Russia. This would at least relieve some of Russia’s financial burden, although it will have to compensate Crimea for a decline in Crimea’s important tourism sector as a part of Russia, whose stringent visa requirements are likely to deter European tourists. It seems most likely that Option 2 will occur, especially given the weakness of the sanctions issued by the US and EU (more on that later).

Both Option 1 and Option 2 leave the possibility of war between Ukraine and Russia wide open. Most Ukrainians seem to be opposed to war, and Russia obviously has a much larger military (and the nuclear option, which Ukraine was persuaded to abandon in 1994). But those eastern Ukrainian oblasts must seem awfully appealling right now, and it would spare Russia the headache of figuring out how to ferry goods and services to an isolated Crimea…

Two Foreign Affairs Articles About Ukraine + Crimea (and Russia, too) for Thought

I complain vociferously about the lack of Ukraine experts out there. Seriously, people, being a Russia expert (and there are certainly few enough of even those) is not the same as being a Ukraine expert. When I wrote my dissertation on Ukrainian politics, I’m pretty sure I encountered just about all of them in my research. Here are two articles from two bona fide Ukraine scholars, one in Canada and one in America. They were instrumental in my research, and I have great respect for both (and they probably do not know that I exist).

Article #1: Farewell, Crimea: Why Ukrainians Don’t Mind Losing the Territory to Russia, by Taras Kuzio

Article #1 explores some of the reasons for Ukraine’s passivity in responding to the perceived occupation of Crimea by Russian military and the Crimean secession movement. First, and foremost, there is the fragility of the interim government in Kiev (which, in my opinion, is hardly less stable than most of the elected Ukrainian governments, but that is a different discussion). And then of course, there’s the issue that Crimea, with its very Russian history, tends to be fairly anti-Ukrainian, while Ukraine tends to see Crimea as Russian and is therefore mostly ambivalent towards it. Top it off with the fact that Ukraine has to pay enormous subsidies to keep Crimea’s agricultural and tourism sectors afloat, is periodically plagued with the thorn its side of the Black Sea Fleet, and a domestic population that includes a strident pro-Russia, anti-Ukraine movement as well as a bit of Islamic insurgency, and well, no one would really miss Crimea all that much in the long run. Eastern Ukraine, however, would be a different beast entirely.

Article #2: Is Losing Crimea a Loss?: What Russia Can Expect in Ukraine’s Rust Belt

Article #2 explores the costs to Russia of annexation – not just of Crimea, but of southeastern Ukrainian oblasts [provinces] (Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhiya, Kherson, and Mykolaiv). Basically, all of these regions are home to huge loss-making industries: coal in the south-east, and tourism/agriculture in Crimea. Can Russia’s economy, whose growth is slowing, support the acquisition of a large number of dependent oblasts? Probably not. Motyl also attempts to spin Ukraine’s presumed defeat in a landwar as a positive, claiming that the Ukraine that emerged from the conflict would be more homogeonous, unified, poised for economic expansion and European integration, etc. This is a fairly nationalist argument and smacks of Roman Dmowski’s post-WWI vision for Poland, but perhaps I’m a bit sensitive to the homogeneity remark.

After the Referendum…Then What?

We’re all waiting with bated breath to see what developments come out of Crimea in the next few days. Are we really, though? Some of it, at least, is probably already decided.

On February 27, the Crimean Parliament voted to hold a referendum on the status of Crimea. The referedum was initially set to May 25 (coinciding with the Ukrainian presidential elections) but was subsequently moved to March 30 and finally March 16. The ballot will be tri-lingual (in Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean Tatar) and will present voters with two options:

  1. Do you support Crimea joining the Russian Federation as a federal subject? (Yes/No)
  2. Do you support the restoration of the 1992 Crimean Constitution and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine? (Yes/No)

The vote will be decided by a simple majority, with the option that gets the most votes winning.

Crimea’s changing demographics and conflicted loyalties (hint: they’re mostly loyal to themselves) would most likely leave the results a fair vote up for grabs. Of course, this vote is conducted under the watchful eyes of the heavily pro-Russia Crimean Parliament (which voted 78-0 in favour of joining Russia) and the, ahem, self-defence units patrolling the streets of Crimea. Even the construction of the ballot makes it fairly obvious that the Crimean decision makers, at least, would probably like to align themselves with Russia. Already, Ukrainian television channels are being blocked in Crimea, and given the way politics in Eastern Europe work, the result of the referendum is basically a foregone conclusion (hint: it’s probably not the second option). Observers from the OCSE (Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe) have been turned away from Crimea all week, but

blah blah
An idea of the environment in which the referendum is being conducted. The top line reads “On the 16th of March, we choose.” The images imply that the voters choices are either Crimea under Nazi occupation or Russia. Note that both images exclude the land linkage to Ukraine, eliminating it completely from the picture.

The legitimacy of the referendum is up for debate. It is a clear violation Article III of the Ukrainian domestic law on referendums, which says that changing the borders of Ukraine can only be done via national referendum, not an exclusive Crimean referendum. The European position for most of the last two decades has been that ethnic minorities do not have the right to secede (with the exception of Kosovo), and Russia has strongly supported this position with regards to its own internal ethnic minorities. However, statements made by Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk on his visit to Washington DC seem to indicate that the Ukrainian government would not be opposed to a national referendum on the status of Crimea if the “self-defence units” were withdrawn.

When the votes are counted, Putin and Russia will have a decision to make about Crimea regardless of the outcome of the referendum. Putin’s reactions to other similar situations have provided some examples of what his reaction may be.

If the results of the referendum indicate that Crimea would like to become a part of Russia, then it is highly possible that Putin will proceed with the annexation as planned. Already Russia has offered Crimea over $800 million in financial assistance (with smaller amounts allocated to other cities in the area) if it were to join Russia. The discussion over the construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge, a proposed bridge connecting Crimea and Russia, has once again heated up. Of course, annexation would require a certain amount of support from the Russian legislature, but statements issued from the upper house this week show that this would likely be there.

To the rest of the world, this would be by far the most outright aggressive move. Certainly, world leaders like Angela Merkel and Barak Obama have made statements over the last few days indicating their disapproval of any potential annexation of Crimea by Russia (or any threat to Ukraine’s territorial integrity). However, the Obama administration has certainly been reluctant to issue an unequivocal statement as to what the US reaction to annexation would be, threatening no more than economic sanctions, which have not proven to be much of a threat to Russia in the past.

Another possible outcome is that Crimea becomes a breakaway republic a la Transnistria – not a part of Russia and in possession of limited recognition. Transnistria is not recnognised by any UN member states, but the permanent Russian military presence means that it is de facto under Russian protection. If annexed by Russia, Crimea would almost certainly never go back to Ukraine. However, if Crimea were to go down the route of Transnistria – that is, to exist in a sort of limbo – there would be at least some potential for recovery by Ukraine in the future.

The most unlikely conclusion of the Crimean referendum would be independence for Crimea (despite the fact that Crimeans seem to be most loyal to themselves). Russia attempted to achieve international recongition for Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 Georgia War, with limited success. Several UN member states recognised the two breakaway republics after heavy lobbying by Russia, however, their lack of recognition means that their economies are propped up largely by Russia. In the case of Crimea, with its much larger population, such a scheme would not be sustainable for Russia’s economy.

During Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk’s visit to Washington DC, he has emphasised the importance of maintaining Ukraine’s borders (despite statements that he would otherwise consider concessions to Crimea). US politicians have issued similarly tough language, threatening further sanctions if the referendum were to go ahead on Sunday, and European politicians, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, have strengthened their rhetoric and made remarks explicitly condemning annexation of Crimea by Russia. At the same time, however, statements from US Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to stress the number of wildcards involved in the criss and the hope of finding a diplomatic solution to it as long as Russia stopped short of actual annexation.

While any alterations to Ukraine’s territory could not be done without the involvement of the Ukrainian government, statements from Washington do not preclude the possibilty of Crimea going to Russia with Ukrainian consent. Historically, Crimea has been Russian territory, and US foreign policy priorities at the moment do not have room for a major breakdown in US-Russian relations. Rather, Russia’s importantance to US negotiations in Syria and Iran make it all the more likely that the US will be willing to pressure Ukraine to make some concessions to Russia to avoid Russian-Ukrainian relations deteriorating further. For example, the US and Europe could persuade Ukraine to accept the Crimea referendum in exchange for Russia’s recognition of the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government and election process as well as Ukrainian territorial integrity. Avoiding outright military conflict would be a win for the US and Europe, as well as Russia, where Putin could spin reclaiming Crimea as a victory. The important thing to note is that there are a lot of factors in play here, and Russia is most likely looking for an excuse (like tonight’s clashes in Donetsk, supposedly escalated by pro-Russian protestors) to esclate the situation not only in Crimea but in eastern Ukraine as well.

Let’s Talk About That Pesky Crimea

The future of Crimea hangs in the balance! The Russians are coming! Quick, we must save it from joining Russia, a fate worse than death!

Perhaps this is a bit melodramatic, but so is much of the rhetoric regarding Crimea that I’ve heard since Ukraine went from protests to crisis. Crimea, in case you haven’t seen a map on the news of late, is a peninsula in the Black Sea attached to Ukraine. It’s separated from Russia at its eastern tip by the Strait of Kerch, which is a mere 2 miles wide at its narrowest. Crimea is ethnically diverse, and the one and only post-Soviet Ukrainian census from 2001 puts the numbers at 58.5% ethnic Russian, 24.4% ethnic Ukrainian, and 12.1% Crimean Tatar.

One of the points I’ve been trying to make is that overestimating the importance of history in Eastern Europe is not possible, and it is the case with Crimea as well. Although Crimea is nominally a part of Ukraine today, it remains an autonomous republic within the country (although it has no areas of competence when it comes to foreign relations). However, Crimea is a very recent addition to Ukraine’s borders.

(images taken from http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/140305-maps-crimea-history-russia-ukraine/)

Prior to 1954, Crimea had changed hands a number of times – but it was never a part of the land that was “Ukraine”. For centuries, Crimea was repeatedly conquered by different forces until the 15th century, when a Mongol established a khanate there. Soon after, the khanate became a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire (although it enjoyed a great deal of autonomy). By the end of the 18th century, the Ottoman Empire was in decline. Russia seized upon the opportunity and engaged the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War, handily defeating the Ottomans and annexing Crimea in 1783.

Under the Russian Empire, Crimea became a part of the Taurida Governorate, which contained areas of southern Ukraine as well, where it remained until World War I. Crimea’s strategic location in the Black Sea meant that it was the scene of much fighting during the Crimean War of the mid 19th century, and despite the fact that it was mostly conquered by the combined forces of France, Great Britain, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire, the Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, gave Crimea back to the Russian Empire.

Following the collapse of the Russian Empire, Crimea, like Ukraine, changed hands a number of times. Finally, in 1921, the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was established as a part of the Russian SFSR and subsequently became a part of the Soviet Union. Crimea’s fate under Stalin was similar to that of Ukraine. It suffered from famine, and in 1944, in retaliation for what he claimed were their collaboration with the Nazis during World War II, Stalin had the entire ethnic Tatar population relocated to Central Asia as a form of punishment. Of course, Stalin’s relocations didn’t come with moving trucks and compensation, and about 46% of the deportees died enroute.

Crimea eventually became a part of Ukraine in 1954, in a land transfer that could literally only happen in the Soviet Union, when Nikita Khrushchev, then the Soviet Premier, simply gifted it to Ukraine to celebrate 300 years of Russian-Ukrainian friendship. Of course, things like that were totally grand in the Soviet Union, because it was just one big happy family, and who cares if Russia just gives Crimea to Ukraine, Russia controls Ukraine, and Crimea’s nominally autonomous anyway. Apparently Soviet leaders, like most politicians who don’t bother with foresight, didn’t ever conceive of the Soviet Union collapsing.

But of course it did. In 1992, Crimea agreed to remain a part of Ukraine in exchange for becoming even more autonomous than it already was. Meanwhile, Tatars began returning from Central Asia, exacerbating ethnic tensions. Russia, Ukraine, and Crimea handled the disintegration process rather poorly and were left with a peninsula containing an ethnically diverse population dominanated by an imported group of people, and Russia’s only warm-water naval base, which exists on Ukrainian soil. Not that this was a recipe for administration problems at all.

It’s not at all surprising that tensions in Crimea are boiling over. In 2009, ethnic Russians in Crimea protested against Ukraine, and in 2010, the renewal of Russia’s lease on the military wharf and installations in Sevastopol until 2042 caused chaos to erupt in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. Russia’s unwillingness to abandon Sevastopol and develop other potential warm water naval bases, for example at Novorossiysk (where a new naval base is very slowly being built), demonstrates its continued interest in Crimea, which is also a very popular spot for Russian tourists. While Crimea may be attached to Ukraine, it is not Ukrainian in the same way that other areas of Ukraine are, even those in the east, especially with the enhanced autonomy afforded to it after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Predicting the outcome of the March 16 referendum based on current available data is difficult, because it makes it pretty obvious that most Crimeans’ loyalty is not to Russia or Russia, but first and foremost to Crimea. However, it has been fairly obvious all along that the Crimean Parliament is dominated by pro-Russia sentiment (especially since they’re the ones calling for the referendum, which has been termed illegal by the government in Kyiv). And given the way voting works in Eastern Europe, and the fact that the referendum is of course being conducted under the watchful eye of the, um, “self-defence groups”, it’s basically a foregone conclusion how it will turn out. Your move, world powers.

Why Ukraine Matters So Much To Russia: A Brief-ish History of Russian-Ukrainian Relations

One of the essential pieces of understanding current events in Ukraine is the regional history. I’ve heard the number “300 years” bandied about in the last few days, but the reality is that Russian and Ukrainian fortunes have been intertwined far longer than that, and for much of that time, they weren’t necessarily pleasant. I think it’s difficult for many Americans to understand the concept of any sort of deeply seated ancestral sentiment, mostly because a lot of our ancestors haven’t been here long enough for any such thing to take root. But in areas like Eastern Europe, where relevant history stretches back over a thousand years, people consider things that happened long before they were born when reacting to current events. I’m going to attempt to very briefly explain some of the history between Ukraine and Russia and how it contributes to the complexity in the region today.

Once upon a time, the East European Plain (better known to most people as the present-day area containing Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltics, and Western Russia that Russian and German armies like to charge across to attack each other) was inhabited by a multitude of tribes. The most dominant of these tribes became the East Slavs. There were also a bunch of Scandinavians called the Varangians. Details are a bit sketchy, but one of these Varangians, a chieftain named Rurik, managed to gain control of Ladoga, an important port settlement not far from modern St. Petersburg, and then moved further inland and made Novgorod his capital somewhere around 860.

Rurik’s successor, Oleg, led a military force south along the Dnieper River to Kiev, which he conquered and made his new capital. And so began the state of Kievan Rus’. Oleg consolidated his power along the rivers and main trade routes running through Eastern Europe, and the new state prospered due to steady supplies of tradable goods, like furs, honey and slaves. At its peak, Kievan Rus’ spanned a huge swath of land from the Baltic Sea in the north, down to the Black Sea and from parts of modern day Poland in the west to large areas of Russia in the east.

The expansion of Kievan Rus’ that Oleg had begun was continued by his two successors, Vladimir the Great and Yaroslav the Wise. In 988, Vladimir adopted Orthodox Christianity and managed to negotiate a marriage for himself to the sister of the Byzantine emperor. Thanks to the efforts of Cyril and Methodius, two monks who had been sent out to convert the Slavs years earlier, the Church already had a body of liturgy in Cyrillic, as well as some texts that had been translated from Greek. These texts allowed the East Slavs to acquire at least some rudimentary knowledge of Greek philosophy and science. Yaroslav embraced the new religion, founding cathedrals dedicated to St. Sophia in Kiev and Novgorod.

By the 12th century, Kievan Rus’ was in decline. Its system of principalities had given rise to regional centres of power which were now in full competition with each other. The Mongol invasion in the 13th century was the final blow for the decaying state, which was replaced by new cities such as Moscow, where a branch of the Rurikid dynasty ruled until the end of the 16th century.

While Kievan Rus’ is the cultural forefather of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine (especially linguistically and religiously), that does not mean that subsequent relations have always been positive. Modern-day Ukraine, like most of the East European Plain, spent much of second millennium under foreign domination, from various empires and invaders. During the 19th century, Ukraine, like much of Eastern Europe, experienced a rise in nationalism. In the wake of World War I and the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, which had dominated Ukraine, a strong movement for self-determination emerged. A number of competing Ukrainian states developed, but ultimately, it was the pro-Bolshevik Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic controlled from Kiev that stuck.

The Soviet Union was not kind to Ukraine, particularly after Stalin’s rise to power. The USSR looked at Ukraine, with its fertile soil and high output of crops like wheat, sugar beet, and sunflower seeds, as its breadbasket and promptly subjected it to a programme of collectivisation as well as production quotas. Under the collectivisation policy, Ukrainian peasants were not allowed to receive food supplies until the production quotas had been met. Eventually, the NKVD (a group largely responsible for political repression under Stalin) would forcibly seize food stocks from peasants. The end result of this was that a mass famine known as the “Holodomor” occurred from 1932-1933 and resulted in the deaths of millions of Ukrainians (there is a huge amount of debate about numbers, and I won’t attempt to cite any here). Today, this famine is considered a genocide by a number of governments.

At the same time as the Holodomor was destroying Ukraine’s rural population, the intelligentsia were being targeted by political repression and persecution. In the early stages of the Ukrainian SSR, the Soviet government had encouraged Ukrainisation policies designed to spur a cultural renaissance, particularly of language, literature, and the arts. Under Stalin, all of this was reversed, as Stalin strove to eliminate any nationalistic sentiment in Ukraine. By the end of the 1930s, nearly 40% of the Communist Party in Ukraine, including all of its leadership, had been purged (either executed or sent to labour camps in Siberia), as had over three-quarters of the intelligentsia.

The relationship between Ukraine and Russia stretches back over 1000 years, and to this day, the two countries are inextricably linked, linguistically, culturally, and economically (prior to the 20th century, Ukraine was commonly known as “Little Russia”. The name “Ukraine” supposedly from an older name for the area that meant “borderland”.) Despite the current tensions over Crimea and the legitimacy of the new government in Kiev (more on that later), this special relationship – which I’ve heard likened to the UK-US relationship – is unlikely to vanish. Yes, Russia is looking to preserve is global influence by preventing countries like Ukraine from changing their loyalties. But the situation is also more nuanced than that. Putin, who made rekindling the relationship between the Kremlin and Orthodox Church one of his priorities, is unlikely to want the seat of Slavic Orthodoxy aligned against Russia. To him, modern Russia owes much of its cultural heritage to Kiev, and the cultural and economic connections between the countries mean that they belong together. But the scar of Communism is still very raw in Ukraine, with people alive who remember the destruction of the Holodmor, World War II, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (of which Ukraine bore the environmental brunt). Ukraine has clung to its independence since 1991, and the more aggressive Russia becomes in its push to force Ukraine back under its wing, the more likely Ukraine is to try to fly the nest in response.

“Crimea, Oil, and Gas” – Yulia Latynina Weighs In

In a Novaya Gazeta article last week, Russian journalist/author/radio personality Yulia Latynina presented some ideas on how pressure can be applied to Putin via Russia’s very important economic sectors, oil and gas. Latynina is known for her generally anti-establishment views (and science fiction novels, which is where I first encountered her), so her stance in this article should come as no surprise. In case you are not in the mood to read Russian or Google Translate, here’s a brief summary:

Ukraine and Poland need to tap into their shale gas reserves. This can then be used to disrupt Russia’s dominance in the European energy markets. [JK note: Of course, this strategy would take considerable time to implement, and I strongly oppose fracking.] Or the US could lift its embargo on Iran, which could in turn flood the markets with oil and drive prices down. It could also start exporting gas to the same end. This strategy could potentally bankrupt Russia’s energy-income dependent economy, Putin’s popularity would plummet, and problem solved. [JK note: This is a quicker solution and could take US-Iran relations in a very interesting direction. It would be quite the turnaround from the US using Russia to communicate to Iran to the US using Iran to communicate to Russia.]

However, Latynina is also highly critical of the West, which she views as divided and weak. I will quote here, since her language made me laugh:

On the other hand, Western resolve atrophies before our eyes. In modern Western democracies, there are many influential bureaucratic institutions that protect the rights of shellfish in the Thames Valley, regulate the curvature of cucumbers, and weigh rolls. The existence of institutions capable of implementing strategic decisions, or at least of providing heads of state with adequate information to assist them in this process is something more problematic…