Democracy Lab

Russia's Window of Opportunity in Ukraine

If Putin wants to make a grab for Ukraine's east and south, he'll need to move soon.

On March 21, President Vladimir Putin signed the final decree on the annexation of Crimea. Fireworks lit up the Moscow sky, and crowds around Russia celebrated the peninsula's "reunification with the motherland."

According to pro-Kremlin pollsters, over 90 percent of Russians support "reunification with Crimea." The president's approval rating has skyrocketed. Putin's emotional 50-minute speech before signing the "Crimean reunification" treaty was repeatedly interrupted by standing ovations. Putin spoke, at times with palpable bitterness, about the injustices Russia has suffered since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which, he said, had left his country weak and his compatriots a "divided people." The West, according to Putin, had overplayed its hand, pushing Russia too far by attempting to take over Ukraine under the guise of an association agreement with the EU. Now Moscow is pushing back by taking "our Crimea." Putin called for national unity in the face of Western sanctions and warned against internal subversion by an unnamed "fifth column of national traitors." At the same time Putin sounded a conciliatory note, promising that "we do not want to break up Ukraine."

Is Putin's promise genuine? On March 4, Putin publicly promised [Rs.] not to "consider" annexing Crimea -- and then proceeded to do exactly that. The Russian president may find it hard to stop there. The problem is that his brand-new province is deeply dependent on the Ukrainian mainland, which is the source of almost all of its electricity, water, and food. The peninsula's railroads and highways lead north into Ukraine. The only link between Crimea and Russia is a ferry crossing from Kerch that connects the peninsula to Russian Taman in the North Caucasus. Russian officials have announced plans to build new power stations in Crimea and a grandiose bridge from Kerch to Taman. These projects will cost billions and require years to complete. Crimea, moreover, has a rapidly aging population of over 2 million. Sustaining Crimea and fully rebuilding its infrastructure to separate it from Ukraine could cost tens of billions of dollars over the next five years, straining [Rs.] the Russian budget. An isolated, Russian-controlled Crimea facing a hostile Ukrainian mainland hardly seems like the kind of scenario Putin envisaged.

Moscow has stated it will not recognize any government in Kiev or the results of any national elections in Ukraine until a new constitution is adopted. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has specified that this new constitution, which must be unanimously adopted by all regions of Ukraine, must transform the country into a loose "federative state," one in which Russian will be an official language along with Ukrainian and the regions will be allowed to conduct their own foreign and economic policies. The establishment of a new Ukrainian state along these lines would essentially change a belt of mostly Russian-speaking regions inside Ukraine, stretching from Moldova in the southwest to Voronezh in the northeast, into a de facto Russian protectorate (even though they would still remain part of a nonaligned Ukraine). Control of these areas would allow Russia to link up with the pro-Moscow Transdniester enclave in Moldova along Ukraine's western border, where Russia still has a military garrison. The political and economic integration of large sections of a "federative Ukraine" could eventually lead to their joining the Russian Federation, like Crimea. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry rejected the Russian plan to impose a federal system on Ukraine, calling it "unacceptable."

The interim Ukrainian President Olexander Turchinov has announced that -- rather than passively resisting, as Ukrainian forces did in Crimea -- Kiev's forces will "accept battle" if Russia makes any further encroachment on Ukrainian territory. On March 17, the parliament in Kiev voted to mobilize some 40,000 men to beef up the dilapidated Ukrainian military. A National Guard is being formed and some 20,000 volunteers have been called to join. The call-up of men and volunteers has been plagued by chaos and disorganization as the ill-experienced post-revolutionary government in Kiev struggles to cope with seemingly insurmountable political, economic, and social problems -- in addition to the annexation of Crimea and threats of further aggression. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian army's battle readiness has begun to rise [Rs]. Joint battalion-strength combat groups are being formed. Maintenance crews, including civilian specialists from the still vast Ukrainian defense industry, are struggling to get armor and other heavy equipment ready for operation. (The photo above shows Ukrainian armored personnel carriers heading through eastern Ukraine.)

Ukraine's armed forces have at their disposal vast amounts of Soviet-style heavy weapons and staggering stocks of munitions: thousands of tanks, heavy guns, and rockets as well as hundreds of jets, helicopters, and antiaircraft missiles. Most of this hardware is in storage or otherwise out of order. Given enough time and effort, however, some of these armaments could be made usable again, and the Ukrainian military could be transformed into a formidable fighting force -- especially if its leaders manage to somehow amalgamate the professional abilities of their small, largely demoralized regular force with motivated patriotic volunteers. Of course, the Ukrainian military badly lacks many essentials, like good boots, socks, field fatigues, body armor, Kevlar helmets, medical kits, communication equipment. Should they succeed in refurbishing some of their weapon systems, they should be able to achieve the status of a respectable, albeit non-modern, Soviet-style force. But the opposing Russian military can be described in the same terms: The government's vastly increased spending on rearmament in recent years has so far changed little in this respect.

Russian forces have been concentrated for possible offensive action on the borders of Ukraine, in vast numbers and in a high state of readiness, according to U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe. In a series of military maneuvers on the Ukrainian border, Russian paratroopers (the VDV corps) and the air force have been preparing to spearhead a possible push deep into Ukraine. The lightly armed paratroops have  been training to take over "enemy airfields and airports as bridgeheads of an overall advance." Such a thrust would be closely followed by the tank and motorized army brigades that have been training and deploying [Rs.] along the Ukrainian border. The Russian Defense Ministry denies that it is preparing to invade Ukraine. It is likely that the Kremlin has yet to issue a final order approving an actual invasion.

If Putin decides to send in his troops, he has a narrow window in which to act. The winter of 2014 in Russia and Ukraine was relatively mild with little snow, while the spring is early and warm. The soil is drying rapidly, meaning that it will soon be possible to move heavy vehicles off of highways and into fields in southern areas of Ukraine close to the Black and Azov Seas. A key date is April 1, which marks the beginning of the Russia's spring conscript call-up, when some 130,000 troops drafted a year earlier will have to be mustered out as replacements arrive. This would leave the Russian airborne troops, marines, and army brigades with many conscripts that have served half a year or not at all, drastically reducing battle readiness. The better-trained one-year conscripts can be kept in the ranks for a couple of months but no longer. Otherwise they'll start demanding to be sent home, and morale will slip. As a result, Russia's conventional military will regain reasonable battle-readiness only around August or September 2014, giving the Ukrainians ample time to get their act together.

Ukraine has scheduled a national presidential election for May 25 that may further legitimize the regime the Kremlin hates and wants to overthrow. The Kremlin may find it hard to resist the temptation to attack Ukraine and "liberate" the south and east while Russia is ready, the Ukrainian military weak, and the regime in Kiev unstable. Such a move could lead to more Western sanctions, but this risk maybe dwarfed by the vision of a major geostrategic victory seemingly at hand.

The window of opportunity for an invasion will open during the first weeks of April and close somewhere around the middle of May. During his long rule Vladimir Putin has generally shown himself to be a shrewd and cautious operator, but his actions during the Ukrainian crisis have been rash. So far his daring has paid off. This, unfortunately, is precisely what could trigger more bold moves down the road.

SERGEY BOBOK/AFP/Getty Images

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Hey, world, we Malaysians know you want straight answers about MH370. But you’re asking the wrong government.

On March 24, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak appeared before the press to announce that missing flight MH370 "ended in the Southern Indian Ocean." Najib's statement finally gave the families of the passengers an "answer" on the fate of their loved ones. But it comes after weeks of spectacular obfuscation by Malaysian government officials, who repeatedly fudged details, contradicted each other, or used the tragedy to score points against the political opposition. Just to add insult to injury, Malaysian Airlines informed the families of the sad news by sending them a text message. Small wonder that some of the relatives are now accusing Malaysian officialdom of orchestrating a "cover-up," and demanding to see concrete evidence such as the plane's black box.

The rest of the world has reacted to the half-truths of the Malaysian authorities with bewilderment. But to us Malaysians it's nothing new: We've been putting up with this sort of crap our entire lives. Our officials are incapable of communicating because they've never felt the need to. Our corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy regards its own citizens with such top-down contempt that its dialogue muscles have simply atrophied.

So it's no wonder that Malaysians have spent the past few weeks coping the way we're accustomed to: by indulging in conspiracy theories, the last pathetic refuge of people who know that they can never expect the truth from their own leaders. So we've seen some Malaysians blaming the loss of the plane on everyone from our own government to the United States, China, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, and -- why not? -- aliens. Yes, it's sad. And yes, it's more than a little crazy. But in the final analysis you can't really blame us. Where else are we supposed to find any answers?

The Malaysian government's response has been dismal almost from the moment MH370 went missing. In most countries, the prime minister would step forward and take the lead during a catastrophe of this magnitude. In Malaysia, however, our prime minister decided to spend his time boasting about his skill at buying cheap chicken, analyzing the economy's health based on the price of kangkung (water spinach), or strolling around shopping malls. He's left the bulk of the mundane task of disaster management to the acting transport minister cum minister of defense, Hishammuddin Hussein, who has figured as the official government spokesman at a number of press conferences following the disappearance of MH370. (Hishammuddin, it's worth noting, is a cousin of Prime Minister Najib -- a coincidence quite widespread in a country where politicians are often linked by clan ties.)

Judging by the reactions from passengers' families and the international media, Hishammuddin hasn't exactly been doing a stellar job. In the early days of the investigation, the minister and his team event offered a conspiracy theory of their own. In this case, Malaysian officials speculated -- without offering any particular evidence to back up their claim -- that the plane's pilot, a "fanatical supporter" of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and a relative of Anwar's son-in-law, might have been motivated to hijack his own plane for political reasons. The day before, a Malaysian court sentenced Anwar to five years in prison on sodomy charges, a decision that bars him for running for office in upcoming elections. Again, none of this comes as a particular surprise. In recent years, government officials have developed the habit of blaming everything and anything on the opposition, and especially on Anwar.

One side effect of the government's inept response to the MH370 catastrophe, according to some, is that it has prompted some unwelcome analysis of the country's political system, which has been dominated by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition for the past 57 years. So is Malaysia's paternalistic political culture really being challenged now that MH370 incident has exposed its leaders to the withering judgments of international critics? I'm inclined to doubt it. As soon as the MH370 issue cools down, Malaysia's government will return to business as usual. Nothing will change.

Just consider the scandal surrounding Abdul Taib Mahmud, the chief minister of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. According to the Bruno Manser Fund, a Swiss environmental group, and local critics in Sarawak, Abdul Taib, who's held office since 1981, has amassed enormous wealth (and caused vast environmental damage) through his unchallenged control of the state's forests. These critics allege that Taib has used his power to enrich his own family and well-connected cronies, who have harvested billions of dollars' worth of tropical timber. Early last year, the international corruption watchdog group Global Witness released extensive video footage from a covert investigation that showed Taib's cousins explaining how they had circumvented state laws to acquired vast tracts of forest land. In January 2013, 20 Swiss members of parliament filed a motion calling for an immediate freeze of assets held by Swiss banks on behalf of the Malaysian Taib family.

In a normal, democratic political system, all this would have prompted official investigations, parliamentary inquiries, demands for accountability. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission did organize a probe to investigate Taib -- but the minister simply declared, with apparent impunity, that he would not cooperate with the "naughty" and "dishonest" commission. As a result, Malaysian officials have yet to open a domestic investigation into the case. One year later, in February 2014, the probe made the improbable claim that it could not find any evidence that Taib had abused his power. On March 1 of this year, Abdul Taib was sworn in for a term as Sarawak's governor -- a position even more powerful than the one he held before.

Taib can get away with this sort of thing precisely because of his cozy relationship with the ruling BN coalition and the party that dominates it (the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO). The ruling coalition sees Sarawak as a vital cache of votes for the party, and within this system, Taib is untouchable. In our general election last year, the main opposition coalition, led by Anwar Ibrahim, won just over 50 percent of the vote -- yet BN still ended up with 60 percent of the seats in the national parliament. That's because the government uses gerrymandering and elaborate dirty tricks to divide up the election system in ways that ensure continued BN rule, regardless of the way Malaysians actually vote. It's not surprising, then, that there is zero sense of accountability in our country -- and that the government officials who have risen to the top of the system feel little pressure to respond to those pesky demands for information from ordinary people.

The Malaysian government has a long history of ignoring its citizens' right to know. Just take one of the most notorious cases. Back in 2002, an international human rights group filed an international court challenge alleging that the Malaysian government had accepted millions of dollars in bribes from a French shipbuilding company in the $1.25 billion purchase of two Scorpene submarines. Though the French investigation produced enough evidence to implicate top Malaysian officials, the government summarily denied the claims, and no one was ever punished. Over a decade later, the scandal is still unresolved.

Or take the murder of Mongolian model and translator Altantuya Shaariibuu (which has also been linked to the submarine case). Witnesses linked Altantuya romantically to one of Najib's best friends and close policy advisors, a man named Abdul Razak Baginda. Sources claimed that she was trying to blackmail Razak with her knowledge of the shady submarine deal before she was killed by two of Najib's bodyguards. Though the case implicated both the Malaysian prime minister and his wife, the government never initiated any official investigation. The case has remained in limbo ever since.

A private investigator, P Balasubramaniam (known as "Bala"), made a convincing statutory declaration for the prosecution in the Altantuya case -- but soon retracted the statement, and subsequently dropped out of sight, along with his entire family. Bala turned up again a few years later, claiming that he'd been offered $1.5 million by a businessman close to Najib's family if he'd take back his original declaration. Bala died of a heart attack on March 15, 2013, in the midst of campaigning for the opposition in the upcoming election. Then Olivier Metzner, a French lawyer involved the submarine court case, was found dead in "an apparent suicide" two days after Bala's death.

Not long after that the Malaysian Court of Appeals decided to acquit the two policemen who had been sentenced to death for Altantuya's murder. The court's decision provoked an angry response from Altantuya's father and the Mongolian government. But, as we've pointed out, foreigners apparently have just as little right to satisfactory information from the Malaysian government as Malaysian citizens do.

We Malaysians, in short, have been putting up with this culture of official impunity for decades. Without having much choice in the matter, we've become accustomed to living under an authoritarian bureaucracy that mocks our requests for honest dialogue, and revels in its own contempt for basic rules of transparency and accountability. Now the international community is getting its own taste of what dealing with this system is really like. What's more, MH370 proves that Malaysia's political immaturity is not merely a domestic issue, but threatens the citizens of other nations as well. As Malaysian citizens, we offer our sincerest condolences to the families of the passengers and the  international community -- and we hope that you'll join us in the fight against our government's blatant corruption.

MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images