How Far Will Putin Go?

Russia's leader is acting impulsively -- and full-scale war may be next.

What began as a localized crisis in Crimea has now become a de facto state of war between Russia and Ukraine. After pro-Russian forces seized control of the Crimean parliament and government last week, Russian troops began occupying strategic sites throughout the autonomous republic on Friday and Saturday. On March 1, President Vladimir Putin escalated the conflict by submitting the following appeal to the Russian parliament:

In connection with the extraordinary situation that has developed in Ukraine and the threat to citizens of the Russian Federation... I hereby appeal to the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation to use the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine until the social and political situation in that country is normalised.

Needless to say, the Council of the Federation gave its approval immediately. The extraordinary aspect of this request is that it gives Putin carte blanche to deploy Russian troops, not just in Crimea, where "citizens of the Russian Federation" are supposedly under threat, but "on the territory of Ukraine" -- that is to say, anywhere "citizens" might be under threat. Insofar as actual or alleged Russian citizens can be found everywhere in Ukraine, Putin has now arrogated to himself the right to deploy Russian troops in, and in effect occupy, all of Ukraine. And since he will be the one to define when "the social and political situation in that country is normalised," that occupation could last as long as he likes -- possibly resulting in permanent annexation.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that pro-Russian forces have seized administrative buildings and called for Russian assistance in a variety of Ukraine's southern and eastern provinces: Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Mykolaiv, and Dnipropetrovsk. Whether they represent anyone beside themselves is unclear, but there is no doubt that pro-Russian sentiment does exist among many ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians in these provinces. More often than not, locals want an expansion of their regional powers and more cultural-linguistic autonomy. These are the normal demands made by regions and minorities in most contemporary states. If Putin were not a factor, authorities in Kiev should be able to hammer out some deal that would satisfy the rebellious provinces.

If, however, Putin decides to intervene militarily in Ukraine's southeast, the tussle between Kiev and the provinces automatically will become a question of separation, dismemberment, and Russian aggression. Both Moscow and Kiev know that Russia's military is superior to Ukraine's. Russian armed forces number about 750,000 troops; Ukraine's about 150,000. Russia has been aggressively spending on its military in the last decade, while Ukraine has actually been cutting back. In any armed conflict, Russia would win. Ukraine's only hope would be to threaten to inflict enough casualties to affect Putin's calculation of costs and benefits. And the farther Russian troops march into Ukraine, the more popular resistance they will encounter -- and therefore the more civilian casualties they will inflict. Is Putin willing to start a war over all or most of Ukraine, or will he confine himself to annexing Crimea or, say, a few southeastern provinces?

The costs of a military incursion beyond Crimea would rise with the extent of the incursion. Annexing Crimea would outrage the Ukrainians and Central Europeans, but might, with some finessing, escape the ire of Brussels, Berlin, and Washington. Invading Ukraine's southeast would be a naked imperial land-grab that would probably usher in a new cold war and shut off Russia from the international community. Launching a full-scale war with numerous civilian casualties, massive human rights violations, and possible ethnic cleansing of Ukrainians from the southeast would transform Putin into a pariah and earn him the reputation of a war criminal. Russia, meanwhile, would be completely isolated and possibly subjected to increasing claims on its own territory, by non-Russians within the country and by large powers (such as China) on its borders.

If one considers Russia's interests, none of this -- the armed intervention in Crimea, the claimed right to intervene anywhere in Ukraine -- makes sense. Putin's arguments simply do not hold water. As objective observers will confirm, there is absolutely no threat to Russian citizens anywhere in Ukraine. There may have been a diminution of overall law and order following the collapse of Viktor Yanukovich's regime, but that affects all Ukrainian residents equally. Nor is the Kremlin's claim that putative "fascists" from Western Ukraine are about to descend on Crimea and the southeast even remotely true. By the same token, intervention, war, international isolation, and the like will not enhance Russians' living standards or their sense of well-being. There may be a temporary spurt of excitement at seeing the Russian tricolor hoisted in Donetsk, but that enthusiasm will quickly fade when Russians realize that these regions will impose an enormous economic liability. And, finally, there is no way that a truncated Ukraine's transformation into a hostile anti-Russian state and a permanent occupation by Russian troops of potentially rebellious provinces -- after all, there are also large numbers of pro-Western Ukrainians in the southeast -- could possibly serve Russia's interests.

There is only one reason Putin has embarked on what Russian democratic opposition leader Boris Nemtsov calls "folly": flexing his military muscle enhances Putin's authority as a strongman who will reestablish Russia's grandeur and brook no people-power in former Soviet states.

Putin's incursion suggests that he must fear Ukraine -- so much so that he is willing to risk Russia's prosperity and stability. Putin the rational Bismarckian geostrategist has clearly given way to Putin the irrational and impulsive leader -- possibly as a result of the triumph of the democratic revolution in Ukraine. This may be the only ray of light in an otherwise catastrophic picture. Bad leaders make bad mistakes and, when they do, their power often disintegrates. Unfortunately, thousands of Ukrainians and Russians may have to die before that happens.



Different Chapter, Same Book

What Crimea’s history can teach us about Crimea’s future.

In 1979, Russian writer Vassily Aksyonov wrote a satirical novel called The Island of Crimea, in which he played with an alternate history of Crimea in the 20th century: The region became neutral and independent. One of the big political questions that the novel raised was whether the Russian people, including the inhabitants of the Crimean peninsula, could ever have a state free of tsarism, communism, and imperialism.

Current events have brought into sharp focus the geopolitical significance of Crimea, while also showing that Aksyonov's plot is likely to remain a fantasy, at least for the time being. It is a real possibility that a separatist rebellion in Crimea, on the heels of President Viktor Yanukovych being ousted in Kiev, could split Ukraine for good. If this happens, Moscow is unlikely to formally annex Crimea -- but even an independent Crimea would probably be dominated by Russia's long reach.

On May 25, when Ukrainians go to the polls in the recently announced general election, voters in Crimea will be asked to decide whether or not they wish to be free of Kiev's authority. Crimea only became a part of Ukraine in 1954, and the region of some two million people remains strongly pro-Russian. That its residents want greater autonomy can hardly be doubted. The critical question, rather, is whether moves will be made to connect Crimea to Russia either formally or informally -- perhaps even before May. Will the regional parliament in Simferopol decide itself to separate Crimea from Ukraine's authority and ask to become part of the Russian federation? Or will Moscow be "invited" into the region even sooner -- sending in military "advisers" and possibly troops to protect the security of Crimea and its Russian population from so-called subversive foreign elements and the nationalist government in Kiev?

Understanding these questions, and the context surrounding them, requires a look back at Crimea's long, complex, and multicultural history. Settled during the Stone Age, it was incorporated, in different periods of history, into Greco-Roman civilization, the Byzantine-Empire, the Kievan Rus, the Ulus of Jochi, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire. After the defeat of the Mongols by Timur in 1441, it was also a Khanate, an independent political entity of Crimean Tatars. Tatars are now a minority in Crimea, as many perished either in Stalin's Great Purge or during the en masse deportation to Uzbekistan at the end of World War II. It comes as no surprise that today Tatars are on the side of the Ukrainian revolution.  

Today, Crimea remains very dear to the Russian nationalist psyche. The peninsula became part of the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great in 1783, providing access to the Black Sea and new land for development. At the end of the 19th century, Alexander III built two lavish palaces in the coastal city of Yalta, called Livadia and Massandra. Stalin hosted Roosevelt and Churchill at Livadia at the Yalta Conference in February 1945; the U.S. president even stayed at the palace.

The Crimean city of Sevastopol, known in Russia as "the city of Russian glory," plays a particularly important role in Russian perceptions of Crimea. Two bloody battles took place there: the first in 1854 between Imperial Russia on the one hand and the Ottomans, French, and British on the other; the second during World War II between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Both battles have been glorified in Russian art, literature, and popular culture. And Sevastopol still harbors the Russian Black Sea fleet.

It was in 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine -- a gesture that was later very difficult to reverse during the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Bitterness about the loss of Crimea remained in the hearts of many Russians, both ordinary people and politicians, and pro-Russia nationalists have continuously strived for independence (with their most recent, serious effort occurring in 2004, amid resentment at the outcome of the Orange Revolution).

Now, some leaders in Moscow seem to be willing to put Sevastopol or all of Crimea back under Russia's thumb. Indeed, in the wake of the political revolution in Kiev, developments are dangerously close to spiraling out of control. Although the Russian foreign minister has spoken of Moscow's intention to respect the "territorial integrity" of Ukraine, Russia ominously conducted military exercises close to the Ukrainian border this week. Meanwhile, masked men stormed governmental buildings in Simferopol and raised the Russian flag. (Their efficiency and professionalism made it look like they were full-time soldiers -- possibly Russian ones -- rather than spontaneous protesters.) "Crimea is Russia," one of their signs proclaimed. "We want a united Russia," the leader of the group is reported to have said.

Two major airports in Sebastopol and Simferopol have also been taken over by unidentified gunmen, and Russian transport planes reportedly landed at the latter on Friday. (Airspace is now closed in the region.) In addition, armored Russian vehicles have ben seen in Crimea's major cities and elsewhere. Amid these developments, U.S. officials have warned Russia against military action. "I urge them not to take any steps that could be misinterpreted, or lead to miscalculation during a very delicate time," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters.

The Ukrainian crisis, and Russia's influence in it, is reminiscent of the crises in Eastern Europe during the Cold War years. In particular, the events in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 come to mind. In both cases, military intervention was requested to quell unrest, and Moscow complied after a period of consideration and hesitation. Even more apt, however, is the comparison with Russia's war with Georgia in August 2008. At the end of that conflict, the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia split from Georgia, and Russia quickly recognized both territories as independent countries. Although hardly any other nation followed suit and offered diplomatic recognition, both territories are now under the full, de facto control of Russia, while Georgia has no influence.

This might well be the model that Russian President Vladimir Putin has in mind regarding Crimea. A notionally independent but Moscow-dependent Crimea would satisfy Russian interests. Internationally Moscow could claim not to have annexed Crimea, but Russian nationalism, namely the strong feeling that Crimea is an integral part of Mother Russia, would be satisfied. And the geopolitical significance of Crimea, including its role as the home of the formidable Russian Black Sea fleet, would also have been retained for Moscow.

Would the European Union and the United States be happy with such an outcome? Hardly. Would they be able or willing to do much about it? Not likely. It is not probable that anyone in the West would wish to go to war over Crimea. Perhaps Putin has realized this, too, and thus is flexing his muscles in the region.

In Sevastopol Sketches, Leo Tolstoy described the horrors of the Crimean War (1853-1857), which resulted in the victory of Russia's imperial armies and further control of Crimea by the tsar. The last of the three stories, "Sevastopol in August of 1855," ends with a very grim observation on the mood of Russian soldiers, despite their success in battle:

"On stepping upon the further end of the bridge, nearly every [Russian] soldier pulled off his cap and crossed himself. But behind this instinct there was another, oppressive and far deeper, existing along with it; this was a feeling which resembled repentance, shame, and hatred."

The triumph of conquest, in other words, was marred by the disgrace of imperialism, ironically undercutting the nationalism that had propelled the invasion in the first place.

One hopes leaders in Moscow, including President Putin, will take time to reread Tolstoy before they decide to interfere further in Crimean politics, take military action, or otherwise try to dominate a region Russia once controlled.