I have not been especially worried about the events in Ukraine over the past three years. Although the pro-Russian/authoritarian government of Viktor Yanukovych was doing Ukrainian democracy no favors, I was confident that the pro-Western/European citizens of Ukraine would eventually swing the direction of their country back towards Europe and democracy. I was correct in this broad evaluation, and in a surprisingly innovative campaign the Euromaidan movement succeeded in forcing the ouster of President Yanukovych and the return of the pro-Western groups to power… where they will have a long, hard grind to reforming Ukraine to the level of a modern European democracy, but that is generally the way it works. It is just a whole lot of work, coupled with solid integrity and a good dose of luck. No great nation was ever built in a day. Also, Ukraine is in desperate need of – to borrow from sporting terms – elite-level leaders to helm the nation through its tough reforms. But that is all on hold now, because of Russia – and I am worried.
Ukraine is in big trouble. A quick glance – see this, this, and especially this – shows that Ukraine has an ethnic problem, and one that Russia is in superb position to exploit. Russian President Vladimir Putin has no illusions about allying with Yanukovych, whom is understood to be held in low regard by the Russian President, but he is strongly interested in maintaining a pro-Russian political position in Ukraine as an integral part of Russia’s Near Abroad. Having failed to maintain a pro-Russian government in Kiev, what are his options to uphold Russian interests in Ukraine?
So many options are available – Russia may not have a generally desirable hand, if one had to play the game, he or she would quickly see Russia’s hand as a strong one. Putin could support the new Kiev government; he has not. Putin could adopt a “wait and see” attitude and make new policy decisions once emotions have settled and the new government goes to elections or after, during the tensions and struggles of implementing reform. Putin could try to prop up the pro-Russian movement with economic carrots and sticks towards Kiev; that has happened already. Finally, Russia could intervene with a variable measure of military force, from special operations teams supporting pro-Russian militias all the way up to overt invasion. And according the the word coming out of Ukraine, that is where Russia is headed.
The Crimea is historically Russian. It is the home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet and thousands of Russian troops. It is also a popular place for Black Sea sailors to retire. It is more Russian than Ukrainian (60% ethnic Russian), and if one looks out from Putin’s Kremlin there are not too many serious downsides to taking it back. Will a Europe reliant on Russian gas take on the Russian military to restore the mostly Russian Crimea to Ukraine? Will the US under Obama engage Russian ships and warplanes? President Obama has been noted to be cautious; it would take something extraordinary to induce him to take a firm stand militarily. It doesn’t help that Russia is needed for support in dealing with Iran and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. There is also no base of popular support in the US for intervention at this time, though that could change. Putin could almost certainly rely on a broad base of support for a Crimea intervention, even though other Russians in government have come out to say that Russia will not intervene. He invaded Georgia six years ago, so we know he is willing to pull the trigger. Once he punches through the Ukrainian military – which the chaos of the Ukrainian political system at the moment will greatly aid – what does he have to fear? A G8 boycott has been mentioned. That’s a joke. In exchange for the Crimea, and perhaps a catalyst for a Russian-majority state arising from a fractured Ukraine, a boycott is very small potatoes indeed. Economic sanctions would also be very unlikely to dissuade him. The prospect of resistance from the minority Ukrainians and Tartars would be more persuasive, but Putin is, if nothing else, a bold man. It would be unwise to put an invasion past him.
Of course, Putin could still wish to maintain Ukraine intact, in which case this could simply be an autonomy push for the Crimea, threatening Kiev with deniable actions to buttress Russia’s position in the region. Or it could be nothing more than brash, angry posturing from a frustrated Russian President. There are a lot of things Putin could do, but one thing is for certain: none of them are going to help build a modern Ukraine. Some of them could destroy the country as it currently exists. That is a big worry.
Worry may be the name of the game tonight – tomorrow Crimea could belong to Russia, formally or functionally. The substantiated reports of Russian army movements related to the Black Sea fleet are provocative under the circumstances, but not cause for real concern. However, there have been unsubstantiated reports of Russian troop reinforcements to support Russian units that have taken over airports in the Crimea. If – and given the excitement and sensationalism involved in some of this reporting that is a big if – if those are true, it is probably too late to change the course of events, considering the players involved. For those thinking that an invasion would provoke war between Russia and NATO in the region, here is something else to consider: would historically Russian Crimea be worth a war to save ethnic Russians from political Russians for a divided and struggling Ukraine? When the opponents are both nuclear-armed and the territory has a Russian majority, bold, aggressive actions by Putin may reap him rewards. Or set the world ablaze. As mentioned, this is a good time to be a bit worried.