Rattling Kyiv's Cage

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The big story lately in Eurasia has been that relating to Russia's alleged designs on Ukraine. Following Joe Biden's Skype chat with Vladimir Putin earlier this month, the chatter hasn't ceased. Whether or not Russia will invade Ukraine remains a burning question

One thing that definitely seems different this time, in comparison with Russia's annexation with the Crimea in 2014, is that everything now is being done in the open. Indeed, Russia has been periodically massing its troops on Ukraine's border dating back to 2016. There are no "little green men" infiltrating Ukraine in the manner of the Crimean putsch. 

I think this is a significant distinction, as Putin's so-called designs on Ukraine hold, I believe, much more value as performative theater than as an actual plan. 

But does this mean that Russia will not invade Ukraine? Not necessarily. 

Back in 2014, I wrote a fair bit about Russia's annexation of the Crimea, a subject that I had also written about (here, here, and here) during the brief Russian-Georgia war in 2008. Making the connection between the Russian-Georgia war--fought over the "mini-republics" of Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia--and the Crimea was easy. After all, it's in the "mini-republics" that most conflict has occurred in the former USSR

The Russian government began contributing actively to unrest in Eastern Ukraine at around the same time that Moscow annexed the Crimea, so in the minds of a lot of people the two regions are inextricably connected. And in many ways the Crimea is connected to eastern Ukraine. Both the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are, at least technically, supposed to be under Kiev's rule, and both are home to more populations of ethnic Russians who, in large numbers, support the idea of being ruled by Moscow.  

But in other ways, the situation is quite different. In the Crimea, Moscow actually had concrete interests. For one, the Black Sea fleet is based in Sevastopol. While Moscow and Kyiv had worked out a deal, in 2010, for Russia to rent the facilities for the fleet until 2042, I'm sure that people in Moscow did not love the idea of a future Ukrainian government--perhaps one now in NATO--dictating the terms of the Black Sea fleet's future location to the Kremlin. 

In addition to gaining Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea fleet, in annexing the Crimea Moscow also gained control of a wealth of hydrocarbon reserves. This is one reason why Russia did not stop with simply annexing the Crimea, but has also worked relentlessly since 2014 to gain access to territorial waters surrounding the Crimea--waters which, by international treaty, should belong to Kyiv. 

Finally, the Crimea was a region of Russia that pretty much everyone in Russia considered to be historically a part of Russia--and an important one, too, through the region's connections to Catherine the Great. 

Eastern Ukraine, on the other hand, brings with it considerably less real value to whomever controls the region. Unlike the Crimea, there is no enormous "carrot" along the lines of the Black Sea fleet, to attract an invasion, nor does eastern Ukraine have much in terms of natural resources. 

What does eastern Ukraine have? A number of poor, post-industrial cities, high unemployment, and millions of angry ethnic Russians. 

Ever since the immediate aftermath of Russia's annexation of the Crimea, my sense is that eastern Ukraine has been more valuable to Putin as a means of destabilizing Kyiv, as opposed to being an actual region that leaders in the Kremlin would be willing to actually fight over. Eastern Ukraine simply doesn't possess the material benefits--the fleet and the natural gas--that are found in the Crimea, and neither is eastern Ukraine embedded within most Russians' view of their country the way that the Crimea is. Russians are fond of saying, in connection to the Crimea, "it was always ours." Nobody says that about, say, Kharkov. 

Saber-rattling of the sort that Putin has been involved in has the added benefit of causing most people to forget the Crimean annexation altogether. Russia already has the part of Ukraine that it wants. So, if everyone in the West can get worked up over a different part of Ukraine that Russia doesn't really want or need, then consigning Moscow's illegal annexation of the Crimea to the distant past--seeing it as yesterday's news--is to Putin's advantage. Every minute that Joe Biden spends warning Putin against advancing in Eastern Ukraine marks a time that the US is not talking or thinking about Russia's current occupation of the Crimea. 

So does this mean that Russia will definitely not invade Eastern Ukraine? No, it does not. Unfortunately, if politicians choose to cynically keep people at a hair-trigger for years on end, conflict can begin to take on a life of its own. At this juncture--after seven years of steadily ratcheting up the pressure in eastern Ukraine--I don't think that questions concerning a possible Russian invasion are going to be answered by the Kremlin purely in accordance with what might be in the best interests of people in eastern Ukraine, or in Russia for that matter. Rather, I think that by now it's probably in some people's interests for an invasion to happen. And that alone might be a good enough reason, in some people's minds, for an invasion to actually take place. 

My sense, however, is that if Russia were to actually invade eastern Ukraine, or the rest of the country more generally, it would not be the smooth, professional-looking mission that we saw in the Crimea. Invading Ukraine would be a much messier, and drawn-out affair, especially if Russia attempted to also occupy the western part of Ukraine, with its much higher proportion of ethnic Ukrainians. 

Ultimately, Putin wants to roll back the influence of the European Union and NATO in the region. The key to this is keeping Ukraine and Georgia out of both organizations, and discouraging each of these countries from developing closer relations with either organization. There are probably easier ways of doing this short of an invasion and occupation. Frankly, I think an invasion of Ukraine would be a disaster for Putin, especially if it's not simply limited to the regions in the east of the country. 

But if an invasion does take place, then we'll all be saying кому-то это было надо. For somebody, this was necessary. 


Also see: 

Tough Options 

Russia and the Politics of Citizenship

The Crimea: More Than Just a War

More Thoughts on the Crimea

Crimea on the Brink: What's Going On? 

South Ossetia and the Fate of the Mini-Republics

More thoughts on South Ossetia

Obama, Russia and the Middle East

Trouble in Ukraine 


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