Ukraine

Russia in the Ukraine

Back in April, in my post entitled “I repeat, Russian isn’t going to take any more of the Ukraine“, I wrote that the Russian forces massing on the Ukrainian border were for nothing more than political leverage:

Putin gets to show off the supposed might of the Russian military, Russia’s neighbours quake in their boots and privately vow to be nicer to the big kid next door in future, and Nato commanders get to pretend they still have some relevance. Then after some extensive negotiation, Russia agrees that in a show of good faith, it will stand down tens of thousands of its troops from border patrol. Presumably, the West will offer Russia something in return – perhaps a relaxing of sanctions and a return to a few diplomatic tables in future. Russia is seen to have given something away, but it’s something it never intended to use. The crisis is seen to have been averted, and life returns to normal.

For a number of months, that seemed correct.  Yes, there were suspicions that some of the pro-Russian separatists were from the Russian side of the border, but to my mind it seemed a case of Russia having lost control of the separatists. Putin could agree all he liked that Russia would broker a truce, but that didn’t necessarily mean the separatists were going to listen to him.

However, in the recent weeks it has been increasingly difficult to argue that Russia is not directly supplying the separatists with weapons, training and leadership. Since the downing of Flight MH17, and the pictures of the sophisticated Russian rocket system used in the attack, the Russian aid and influence has been obvious. However, at that time, Russia was still in complete denial, no doubt in large part due to not wanting to own any involvement in the shooting down of a civilian aircraft.

Recently though, Russia is barely even bothering to discuss the troop movements over the border into Eastern Ukraine. Combined with Putin’s change in language (describing the territory held by the separatists as “New Russia”), it’s somewhat ominous times for the Ukrainian Government.

With the separatists having recently routed the Ukrainian army on a number of different fronts, to the point where the Ukrainian Government has had little choice but to agree to cease-fire, it seems increasingly likely that Russia will now carve off a chunk of Eastern Ukraine and put up with the increased sanctions that will undoubtedly follow.

If that’s what ends up occurring, Putin will be gambling that Nato’s recent tough talk is just that – talk only. And his gamble would more likely than not be correct. Europe does not want to go to war, especially not in support of a non-Nato member which has spent the last few decades as a corrupt, largely failed state.

However, Russia’s economy is crumbling, with a huge flight of capital since sanctions were imposed. If the West holds the line, either continuing indefinitely with the existing sanctions or adding a new round of sanctions, Putin’s populist land grab may well end up crippling Russia’s economy for years to come.

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I repeat, Russia isn’t going to take any more of the Ukraine

In my last discussion on the Crimea situation, I wrote:

Putin has now signed a law ratifying a treaty that makes Crimea part of Russia, and has also created two new Russian administrative districts (Crimea and Sevastopol). Ukrainian military bases and ships have been taken by Russian forces (yes, ok, they’re still pretending not to be Russian, by not wearing identifying tags, but that’s not fooling anyone…) without resistance. The US and EU have targeted some light financial sanctions against various individuals supposedly associated with the takeover, while Russia have laughed off the sanctions and have hit back with some light sanctions of their own. Those on both sides who have been sanctioned are now wearing their sanctions as a badge of pride.

And that’s about where it will end, until the time comes to gently phase out the sanctions in the interests of international diplomacy.

Since that post, all sorts of alarm bells have been rung by Western governments and Ukraine’s interim government regarding the number of Russian troops on various parts of Ukraine’s border (and close to the borders of various other ex-Soviet territories). Nato’s rhetoric has certainly stepped up, with various claims that Russia could take Ukraine within three to five days (see this Stuff.co.nz article), and that the “Russian forces are positioned and prepared to begin an invasion of Ukraine within 12 hours of the order being given” (see this NZ Herald article).

I’ve said all along that I don’t believe that Russia will make any further incursions, whether into the Ukraine or elsewhere. They’ve taken back the strategically crucial Crimea, and the costs haven’t been large. But with all of the sabre-rattling that’s been occurring (on both sides), a second incursion may result in much more serious consequences.

That’s why I see the Russian troop movements as nothing more than leverage. Putin gets to show off the supposed might of the Russian military, Russia’s neighbours quake in their boots and privately vow to be nicer to the big kid next door in future, and Nato commanders get to pretend they still have some relevance. Then after some extensive negotiation, Russia agrees that in a show of good faith, it will stand down tens of thousands of its troops from border patrol. Presumably, the West will offer Russia something in return – perhaps a relaxing of sanctions and a return to a few diplomatic tables in future. Russia is seen to have given something away, but it’s something it never intended to use. The crisis is seen to have been averted, and life returns to normal.

Essentially, the sole point of Russia’s troop escalation is to provide diplomatic leverage.

The annexation is complete

Crimea is now irrevocably Russia’s, which isn’t a huge surprise. In my last post on the Crimea, I predicted that:

The Crimean government passes some sort of legislation that declares itself emancipated from Ukraine, before formally asking Russia to become a part of Putin’s empire. Ukraine and the rest of the world declare they will not recognise the legality of both governments’ actions, and sanctions will be imposed. The sanctions will be piecemeal, as too many EU countries depend on Russian gas and the money of their oligarchs. Yes, there’ll be some short-term pain for Russia, but losing Crimea to Western influence is so unacceptable to Russia’s strategic interests that they will weather that pain. The sanctions will slowly fade out and the world will return to normal – except that Crimea will still be in Russia’s hands…

Which has pretty much panned out, thus far. Putin has now signed a law ratifying a treaty that makes Crimea part of Russia, and has also created two new Russian administrative districts (Crimea and Sevastopol). Ukrainian military bases and ships have been taken by Russian forces (yes, ok, they’re still pretending not to be Russian, by not wearing identifying tags, but that’s not fooling anyone…) without resistance. The US and EU have targeted some light financial sanctions against various individuals supposedly associated with the takeover, while Russia have laughed off the sanctions and have hit back with some light sanctions of their own. Those on both sides who have been sanctioned are now wearing their sanctions as a badge of pride.

And that’s about where it will end, until the time comes to gently phase out the sanctions in the interests of international diplomacy.

Sure, the US and EU are talking tough about possible energy sanctions, but those threats always seem to carry an important rider – energy sanctions may be imposed if Russia goes further and tries to annex further territory. Why on earth would Russia go further? It’s already got what it wanted. Crimea has returned to its ownership. Its naval port at Sevastopol has been secured. It’s been playing the long games, and Crimea was essential for Russia’s long-term security.

The major long-term issue for Russia may though be the sudden determination that the EU has for energy dependence. Europe has partially learned from the oil shocks of 2006 and 2009, where supply was disrupted due to rows between Ukraine and Russia over unpaid bills. However, Russia still supplies about a third of the EU’s oil and gas, with some EU countries still almost entirely dependent on Russia. With the EU suddenly realising how powerless that energy dependence has made them, efforts will be redoubled to find alternative sources, which might hit Russia’s hip pocket in future years.

Post-referendum Crimea

So Crimea has held its referendum. It’s unsurprising in the extreme that with Russian troops on all the streets, pro-Russian advertising everywhere and a referendum that doesn’t contain a ‘no’ box, that 93% of those who voted supported becoming part of Russia.

The Russian and Crimean governments will be the only ones pretending that the referendum has any legitimacy. Those who wished  to remain a part of Ukraine will have simply stayed home or spoiled their ballots; after all, there was no box they could have ticked.

My predictions for what happens now?

The Crimean government passes some sort of legislation that declares itself emancipated from Ukraine, before formally asking Russia to become a part of Putin’s empire. Ukraine and the rest of the world declare they will not recognise the legality of both governments’ actions, and sanctions will be imposed. The sanctions will be piecemeal, as too many EU countries depend on Russian gas and the money of their oligarchs. Yes, there’ll be some short-term pain for Russia, but losing Crimea to Western influence is so unacceptable to Russia’s strategic interests that they will weather that pain. The sanctions will slowly fade out and the world will return to normal – except that Crimea will still be in Russia’s hands…

The Crimea situation

When Russian troops first took to the streets in the Crimean region of Ukraine, I made some predictions to my wife. I predicted that there would be a lot of talk from the US, Europe and assorted other Western allies, but little else. The United Nations would make a resolution that the situation should be resolved by diplomatic means. America would bluster, and little else. Meanwhile, Russia would maintain its troop presence, Ukraine’s troops would fire nary a shot in anger, and the Crimea would end up being annexed to Russia almost by default, as international attention eventually moved on.

Well, I was partly right. The UN has, as usual, been all talk, and sometimes not even that. Russian troops are staying put. Ukrainian and Russian troops haven’t yet ended up in battle. Many countries have expressed their disappointment and regret at Russia’s actions, and Russia doesn’t give a toss.

Admittedly, I didn’t see the referendum coming. Whether it’s a good move or not by Russia remains to be seen. It may very well end up being a flashpoint, something that concentrates Ukraine’s mind on the imminent loss of the Crimea and sparks a reaction. Prior to the referendum being announced, the situation could have drifted on indefinitely, with Russian occupation becoming the default setting. With a referendum about to occur, with a pro-Russian outcome being a dead cert due to a lack of a pro-Ukraine option, Ukraine may see the use of force as the only viable solution to keep the Crimea. Whether that’s Ukraine’s ragtag reservist army that’s been rapidly formed, or informal pro-Ukraine militias, remains to be seen.

There will probably be violence, but I doubt the Ukrainian government is foolish enough to risk full-scale war with Russia. There’s now no credible way for Ukraine to keep the Crimea, and Ukraine must surely know that. Any violence will be from pro-Ukrainian protests that turn ugly. Unfortunately for those protesters, Russia is very good at putting down such protests in a quick and brutal manner…