On 27 February, what are believed to be Russian special forces captured key buildings in the Crimean capital, Simferopol. Two days later, the Russian State Duma legitimised the use of Russian forces at the request of President Vladimir Putin, without limiting their movements to the peninsular. The power to invade Ukraine lies in the hands of President Putin, and in his hands alone.
Why has Russia done this?
Putin has emphasised the responsibility of his government to protect ethnic minorities in Russia’s near abroad, yet although there are long, complicated historical processes at work in Crimea, it is far from clear that the Russian minority is either threatened or interested in a return to Russian oversight.
Another justification advanced by Russia is that it is obliged to defend the agreement between the opposition and Ukrainian President Yanukovych. However, Yanukovych has been fatally delegitimised, not least by his flight from Kyiv at the end of February, and the crimes against humanity that Ukraine’s parliament wants him tried for. More importantly, Russia has consistently denigrated the new government – led by veteran politician Arseniy Yatsenyuk, but containing a strange coalition of liberal and nationalist elements – as Nazis and anti-Semites. It is not an arrangement Russia wants to see maintained, but one it would prefer to subvert and manipulate.
That leaves Russian interests as a way of explaining Putin’s behaviour, and indeed there is much to be lost from a Ukraine that drifts towards the West. In the immediate term, there is a Russian naval base in Sevastopol to be defended – the same naval base which Russia faced losing in 2008 due to political opposition within Ukraine, but which it gained an extension to in 2010 following manipulation of its neighbour’s gas supply. A strategic pressure point in Crimea allows Russia to hold Ukraine’s new interim-government hostage, and to extract a ransom.
Russia is also interested in preventing a European foothold in Ukraine more broadly. The West, comprising the US, Canada and the EU, hastened to recognise Ukraine’s new government and appears to be offering substantial financial support. Whether or not one thinks that leaders in the West were correct to support a change in leadership in Kyiv, a coup in Crimea makes exactly the same type of legitimacy claim (one based on popular will).
Russia had hoped to fill a role that now looks to be the EU’s, allowing it to re-establish export markets and political power over its neighbourhood. A prolonged, and possibly insoluble separation of Kyiv and Simferopol’s interests could mean derailing EU integration efforts by creating a new frozen conflict (like the Kosovo problem for Serbia’s membership or Transnistria for Moldova’s).
What is to be done?
By moving troops Russia is playing to its strength, since although it is economically weak and does not want the costs of fighting a war, it has the military hardware and troops to do so. The West is in the opposite position – economically strong (albeit with uncertain security over its energy supplies) but over-stretched and under-resourced for a military conflict. At the same time it is clear that the Yatsenyuk government would be reliant on Western help in any conflict, and the defection of Ukrainian naval units only underscores this.
Ultimately, what we have now is brinkmanship; neither Russia nor the West wants war. However, the biggest worry is that – despite the exceptionalism of the Crimean problem – this already looks unlikely to be the end. The authorisation Putin received from the Federation Council referred to Ukraine not Crimea. If further troubles stir in Odessa, Donetsk or Kharkov and Russian tanks roll in, the West would be under substantial pressure to deploy troops, otherwise there is nothing to stop the Russian tanks rolling onwards to Kyiv.
Understandably, the West has been reluctant to offer a military response. However, the pace of diplomatic efforts also slowed on Monday, with European leaders divided over whether to institute an asset freeze or trade sanctions. Italy is worried about energy supplies, Britain about London’s position as a financial centre and destination for Russian cash. Depressingly, that conflict has started to infect American thinking, with the most powerful Democrat outside of the Obama administration calling on the US to follow Europe into irrelevance, rather than leading the diplomatic efforts.
It may be that the West does not need either a military or diplomatic response. Russian roubles and Ukrainian hryvnia both weakened sharply on the news, with big Russian companies also seeing billions wiped off their market capitalisations and the Central Bank being forced to inject capital into the economy and raise interest rates. Though this is largely due to uncertainty and may change, it comes at a cost not only to the Russian middle class, but to the working classes that make up the bulk of Putin’s supporters. However, that has not yet proved a sufficient threat to change the course of Russian foreign policy.
As timid as it may seem, the West should be exploiting all avenues of communication with Vladimir Putin’s government. While it is essential that Putin be reminded of his obligations under the Budapest Memorandum, the West must also accept that a popular revolution in the capital city does not give Ukraine’s government full legitimacy. That said, elections cannot be held under the threat of war, and a generous approach to Russian interests will not emerge from a radicalising intervention of this kind. It is reassuring that President Obama and Chancellor Merkel are willing to tell their counterpart home truths. They must persuade Putin of the error of his ways.
The following Vostok Cable authors contributed to this editorial: Lili Bayer, Vladimir Sarkisyants, Paul Hansbury, Paolo Sorbello, and Josh Black.