Leave it to Vladimir Putin to spoil what had otherwise been one of the few truly positive developments in global politics of the past few months. It’s not often that you get a corrupt power-hungry goon like Viktor Yanukovych out of power through the most democratic means possible: mass protests. But when it happens in a nation that borders Putin’s increasingly assertive and imperialistic Russia there’s bound to be trouble, especially when the guy who got ousted was the guy who was pushing for closer links between his country and his former overlords. Add when said nation holds one of the most coveted pieces of geo-strategic real estate in the Black Sea area, the Crimean peninsula, then things start getting ugly. Add to this the West’s inability to deal with Putin, then you have the potential for disaster.
The Crimea in history
A little history first. The Crimean peninsula has been throughout human history, one of the most important cross-roads of empires from East and West. The Greeks had founded settlements there, and it became a Roman province during the Empire’s heyday. Subsequently, the Byzantines maintained a presence on the peninsula but this gradually gave way as the Italian city states grew more powerful, and their commercial interests began spreading far from the Mediterranean. First it was the Venetians, later the Genovese, who controlled numerous coastal cities, although by this time most of the peninsula was ruled by the Golden Horde (the Mongol Khanate that ruled over much of present-day European Russia). It is here where an interesting nugget of history took place: the outbreak of plague in the 14th century while the Horde was laying siege to the Genovese city of Kaffa. The Genovese sailors who escaped the siege would bring the plague back to Italy where it spread like wildfire over the next few years, killing a third of Europe’s population and altering the continent’s history forever.
For the next few centuries, the Crimea was successively controlled by Tatars, Ottomans and Cossacks before coming under Russian rule by the late 18th century. During the 1850s, the peninsula was the site of the Crimean War between Russia and an Anglo-French alliance, which resulted in a humiliating Russian defeat and much of the peninsula ravaged by war. Less than a century later, it would suffer similar destruction during World War II where it was occupied by the Nazis during 1941-44. After the war, the Soviet Union took the surprising decision to cede the Crimea (up to then an autonomous republic within the USSR) to the Ukraine on grounds of common economic linkages. No empire ever thinks its days are numbered, and the Russians probably ended up regretting this decision once the USSR disbanded. As a consolation prize, it was allowed to maintain it’s the Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol on a near-perpetual lease and keep a few other garrisons. But despite the fact that the peninsula is largely ethnically (and historically) Russian, it was no longer theirs.
A glittering prize
Judging by history alone, it is safe to say that the Crimea is probably the most important piece of Russia not inside its own borders, and one that if it could be returned back to the motherland would represent a geo-political victory to Putin unlike any other remotely conceivable (the recent Georgian War seems almost seem meaningless by comparison). The question is, therefore, can he gamble on a takeover? At first glance it would seem that such a venture would be out of the question; land grabs of such magnitude are almost unthinkable in this day and age. Since World War II, only a few come to mind and most of them have been either temporary (the Israeli annexation of the Sinai in 1967) or not represented particularly strategic or culturally-significant territory. Furthermore, none of these have involved European nations. Russia would be essentially going where no one since Hitler and Stalin have gone before.
For Russia, the prize is one worth taking the risk, but is it feasible? Playing against Putin is the possibility of Western intervention. The US has stepped up its rhetoric these past days, going so far as to say there would be “costs” if Russia intervenes. But if anyone knows about the costs of going against the West’s wishes these days, it’s none other than Putin’s Syrian ally, Bashir Assad. Judging by the Syrian fiasco, it is unlikely that Putin is trembling in the Kremlin at the prospect of yet another bluff called by the Obama administration and its European allies. Let’s be serious here: if the US and NATO were afraid to intervene in Syria, do you think they’ll have the guts to take on the world’s only other nuclear superpower and which still retains arguably the second most powerful military forces in the world? This may no longer be the Red Army of Cold War vintage, but no country in the world would conceivably think of taking on Russia without a pretty darned good reason. And with the Crimea lacking any payoff worth fighting for by the West (this has typically been oil) means that the gains from even a successful war against Russia are practically meaningless in the grander scheme of things.
Up for the taking
The only other factor that Putin must consider is that the Ukrainian armed forces are more formidable than anything Russia has fought since World War II even though they are still a far cry from what Russia could theoretically array against them. Ukraine’s armed forces are large on paper, but much weaker in practice and are notably short on key equipment such as attack helicopters, fourth-generation fighters and third-generation tanks. It inherited a large stock of former Soviet strategic weapons, including bombers but these have all been scrapped as a result of military budget cuts and post-Cold War arms reduction treaties. Perhaps now they regret not keeping some as there is little in the Ukrainian arsenal that could do much damage to Russia beyond its borders; in contrast, Russia could strike deep and strike hard if it wanted to.
It is certainly true that Russia has hardly performed well in its most recent military adventures, notably the First Chechen War when it suffered an embarrassing setback. In its favor, however, is the restraint showed by Ukrainian authorities towards reinforcing the peninsula when the pro-Russian riots began. This delay has proved fatal: the peninsula is now effectively under Russian control, and any incursion by Ukrainian troops is likely to be a tripwire for all out war. In this situation, the Ukraine’s geographical position is unenviable: it shares around half its borders with Russia, whose military blueprint most likely considers an incursion into the pro-Kremlin east, one with the added advantage that they may be hailed as liberators rather than occupiers.
In a nutshell, it seems that the Crimea is up for the taking if Putin really wanted it. I find it hard that the West would stand up to Russia, given its spinelessness against Syria; by West, of course, I mean the US as Europe is all but meaningless in conflict of this magnitude. Although defeating the Ukraine in combat would hardly be a walkover, the strategic situation is in Russia’s favor: it it has de facto control over the Crimea by now, and an incursion in the east would benefit from a friendly population, therefore avoiding the urban quagmire that it faced in hostile Chechnya. The asymmetry of force between the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces means that the only wildcard is whether the Russians can manage to win a quick victory as I truly doubt they have the skill and the resources for a protracted conflict on foreign territory.
With stakes so high, the stage is set for possibly the first great conflict of the 21st century. Unfortunately, after the moving success of the Euromaidan movement, it seems it is the Ukraine’s to lose. With the situation eerily echoing the crisis over the Sudentenland in 1938, one realizes that there is little a small country can do when its larger neighbor has an eye on its territory. The moral of the story in 1938 was that appeasement only made the aggressor hungrier; hopefully the lessons of history have not been lost on Obama and the West.