The current crisis in Crimea has escalated quickly and was unexpected by most in the West. The Russians and Germans have just agreed to begin talks to resolve the crisis. As in any crisis, resolving this one will require acknowledging what expectations all parties will bring to the table.
Understanding what Russia expects to gain from and what methods it might use in this situation requires understanding Russia’s geostrategic imperatives, which, Russia’s military and government believe, include 1) maintaining the Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol and 2) ensuring the welfare of self-identified Russians living in Ukraine.
To be clear, attempting to understand something is not the same as justifying it. Peaceful development with economic, cultural, and scientific achievements should be the end goals of states. Violence and force should never be celebrated, for they always affect the common people, the source of a state’s democracy and legitimacy, in the greatest proportion. That said, the first step in resolving a problem is to understand it – whether in mathematics or international relations.
Russia’s Imperatives and Military Logic
Russia’s maintenance of geostrategic imperatives explains several actions that Russia has taken that many in West consider counterproductive or irrational. For example, Russia maintains a large stockpile of nuclear weapons as it believes that that is the most effective deterrent to keeping large military powers such as China, the US, or the EU from invading. Conscription, costly in social terms, is needed because Russia’s military victories, fought on Russia’s plentiful, flat lands, have always required massive amounts of boots on the ground. Russia’s very expensive wars and rebuilding projects in the Caucasus Mountains have been undertaken because the Caucasus form one of Russia’s few naturally fortified borders and, furthermore, one that borders two historical rivals – the Turkic and Persian civilizations.
Many might argue that these imperatives are outdated by decades. The Cold War is over and the current major incarnations of the Turkic and Persian civilizations (Turkey and Iran, respectively) are not likely to invade Russia anytime soon. However, Russian history has been dominated by invasions for over a millennium with either Russia pushing out or its enemies pushing in. Russia’s military is not as concerned with current conditions, but rather assumes that anything is possible in the future and that if Russia does not keep its imperatives, especially its geographic imperatives, Russia will one day be no more.
Russia’s Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol gives Russia access to the Black Sea and the ability to effectively patrol Russia’s sea borders there and control potential supply lines that might be used by some future army to take the Caucasus Mountains and reduce Russia’s ability to defend its southern borders. Thus, Sevastopol is another Russian geostrategic imperative and can explain Russia’s strong and potentially expensive actions on the Crimean peninsula.
A second imperative lies in the fact that many Russian voters view Russia as the successor state to the USSR. Because many Russians now live outside the borders of Russia and because most Russians see this as a condition created by the former USSR or by its dissolution, Russians consider their country as a needed protector of the interests of Russians abroad. In part to maintain the constituency that supports it, Russia’s government argues that it must play this role.
Nationalists helped move Ukraine’s most recent revolution forward, forming fighting squads that kept the government forces down and even self-patrol units that kept general rioting and looting to minimal levels. The new government is indebted to the nationalists for its existence and the nationalists form one of the major threats to the government if their loyalty to the state is compromised. There are many instances to be found online of some of these nationalists blaming, among others Russians and Jews, for Ukraine’s problems and pledging to fight such forces. People with such views include the leader of Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor), Dmytro Yarosh. Yarosh, due to his position within the protest forces, is now on Ukraine’s Security Council. Right Sector openly advocates for the “organic de-Russification” of Ukraine, a term with which those who consider themselves to be ethnic Russians in Ukraine are understandably concerned.
Russia’s Options for Action
Russia has several options. Each has various costs – economic (costs to the Russian state and the Russian economy) and geopolitical (lost participation in international organizations and ability to negotiate on issues bilaterally).
Russia is already beginning to experience some of these costs. With war looming, the ruble has plunged to historic lows. Russia’s stock market has fallen drastically, in part because many businesses listed there have assets in Ukraine. The longer the situation remains, the further foreign investment will likely fall due to increased risk. The upcoming Sochi G8 meeting has been cancelled and the seven other members may meet elsewhere without Russia. Other costs are likely to be incurred – visa restrictions, asset freezes, and sanctions are all currently being discussed. Russia will incur costs if it acquires and must maintain new territory. However, some of the options may also carry economic benefits for Russia and Russia may see these benefits, in addition to achieving its imperatives, as reason to move forward with a particular solution.
To fulfill its goals, Russia believes that it needs to alter the current status of Ukraine’s heavily Russian-speaking regions. It can do so by: 1) moving Ukraine from a centralized republic to a loose federation; 2) enforcing independence or absorbing the regions through war; 3) supporting the independence of various regions through referendum; 4) absorption of the regions via referendum.
1) Forming a Federal State in Ukraine
In terms of economic and geopolitical costs to Russia, the federalism solution is the least expensive.
The Ukrainian state is currently a highly centralized structure with Kiev able to dictate most policies for the entire country. Thus, for example, debates over whether to allow other state languages have been long and heated as many in the East consider the official presence of Russian in Ukraine to be an affront to Ukraine’s Ukrainian identity while many in the east, who are native Russian speakers by birth, consider its absence to be an affront to their Russian identity. A looser, federalized structure, some Russian officials have argued, can give each region the power to choose resolutions to such issues for itself, expediting legislation affecting local populaces and helping to preserve the rights of Ukraine’s many minorities. It could also potentially give Sevastopol and Crimea the ability to decide for themselves the fate of Russia’s military base.
If this is Russia’s end goal, Russia likely felt that it would not have been taken seriously in its demands during the most recent Ukrainian revolution. Russia’s and the West’s perceptions of the events were diametrically opposed, as many examinations of media coverage in the two countries has shown. Russia’s repeated calls for the protestors to publically distance themselves from the ultranationalist forces driving most of the violence in the streets was ignored by the protest leaders and those in the West that supported them.
Under this impression, with the protestors continually gaining ground, Russia waited for its opponents to place themselves into a weaker position. Now, with the revolution complete, Ukraine is left with new, ideologically fractured government that is operating in part outside the Ukrainian Constitution. For instance, that document gives parliament the ability to remove a president for reasons of health and requires the approval of Ukraine’s Supreme Court to complete the removal. Yanukovych’s “inability to perform his duties” is not due to his health. The Supreme Court has never been asked to approve Yanukovych’s dismissal. This is probably because, with its current composition, it would not approve such a measure.
Further, the West largely justified its actions based on arguments that Ukrainians had the right to self-determination. Russia will now argue that Ukrainians in the east and south of the country also have that right, that many rightly view the new government as illegitimate, and that they can only be afforded their rights if Ukraine adopts federalism or if new states are created through independence. With Crimea potentially asking for independence and currently militarized with Russian support, demands coming from Crimea and Russia will need to be heard. In this scenario, Russia will assume that all parties would prefer federalism to dividing the country.
Russia’s assistance in deescalating the situation in the Crimea (the forces currently operating outside Russian bases are unmarked and not officially Russian, although they do have at least Russian support) is likely to constitute the major part of Russia’s contribution to a negotiated deal in this solution. Russian aid may be offered through an international organization such as the IMF as Ukraine is unlikely to accept direct loans from Russia given the current situation. However, Ukraine will largely be left to sustain itself and long-term geopolitical fallout will be minimal.
War would be the fastest and costliest option for Russia. Russia currently has military superiority over Ukraine and could likely sweep through its territory quickly unless Ukraine secures outside support.
The new Ukrainian government is untested. Ukraine’s military leadership has been reshuffled several times during and after the revolution as the loyalty of high-ranking officers was called into question. Its ability to wage war is limited especially against Russia’s considerably larger military.
There are several reasons for believing that this solution will not be chosen by Russia. First, considering that it would fastest and victory against Ukraine more or less assured, Russia didn’t immediately take this option and thus has allowed Ukraine to seek to make better military preparations. Second, conquering all of Ukraine would not really be in Russia’s interests. Considerable expense would be expended after the war to put down rebellion in the staunchly anti-Russian west and holding western Ukraine serves neither of Russia’s major imperatives.
Lastly, taking Ukraine militarily would involve rapid troop movement through large amounts of territory that the EU has come to increasingly identify as European. Worse, it would involve Russian troop movements toward Europe, increasing the possibilities of EU retaliation. The US would inevitably side with the EU. Especially considering that Russia’s military is still in the process of being reformed and rearmed after decades of neglect, Russia is not in a position to challenge Europe or America. Thus, a purely military solution could have the unintended consequence of starting a much wider, more expensive war which may or may not achieve either Russian imperative.
3) Forming Independent States through Referendums
Although the first option would be least expensive, it would also be the least likely to achieve Russia’s first imperative of securing a permanent base in Crimea. States, however loosely federated, are usually unified under a single military; decisions for allowing a foreign base within the borders of a state, which affects the foreign policy and domestic security of said state, are necessarily centralized decisions.
Under either Yanukovych or Tymoshenko, Russia would have had a known entity and relatively secure assurances that forces within Ukraine could be managed to allow the base to stay. The current government, however, is new, facing major economic and political challenges, and, in Russia’s view, is more resolutely anti-Russian than any that has come before it. The new government may declare the current lease Russia holds invalid (based on national security, fairness of the terms of the lease, corruption in its procurement, or other reasons) and insist that Russia remove its troops and navy.
Thus, should Crimea declare independence in a referendum on March 30, Russia will support it, removing the Sevastopol base from Kiev’s control and improving its chances of maintaining a permanent base. Similar incidents in Abkhazia, Transdnestria, and Abkhazia have also allowed Russia to maintain troop presence in strategic positions and/or reduce access to its territory by members or potential members of NATO.
However, removing Crimea from Ukraine also removes one of Ukraine’s most heavily Russian-identifying constituent units. This would reduce the influence of the remaining Russians in Ukraine’s centralized state. Should Russia support Crimea in independence, Ukraine’s eastern regions may also hold referendums and would likely have full Russian support in enforcing independence, should the referendums pass.
The direct economic cost of this option is minimal as the independent regions would officially declare independence on their own and officially run themselves. Some economic assistance would likely be given to ensure that the territory would be financial stable and able to provide for the populace in a way that would temper resistance to the newly independent government. For instance, Russia has already reportedly promised one billion in assistance to Crimea and five billion in investments to be made by Russian companies. However, this is still considerably less expensive than attempting to win a potentially global war. Also, Ukraine’s southern and eastern provinces are reasonably well developed economically and would be much better placed to be independent than is, for example, South Ossetia. All have industry, water access, and extensive transport infrastructure already in place.
Geopolitical fallout for Russia would be considerable. While such a referendum is not likely to pass in all potential territories, it is likely to pass in some. Russian media has already reported that interest has been shown from Kherson, Myakoliv and Odessa. Donetsk has already announced that will plan a referendum. Russia could be accused of de-facto annexing up to half of Ukraine’s territory and depriving it of nearly half its GDP (assuming that all “eastern” territories are lost: Crimea, Khrakiv, Donetsk, Zaporiahia, Kherson, Myakoliv, Odessa, and Dnipropetrovskt). There is some potential that the EU may see this as a military action, but if there is an ostensibly legal process behind the declarations, the EU is not likely to risk sparking a major confrontation with Russia (see above for discussion on war).
Another downside to this would be that the new, smaller Ukraine may be able to unify enough to allow it to join NATO, which may greatly increase the border Russia shares with the military alliance.
Russia might consider the costs of this solution affordable as, in addition to securing the imperative of maintaining its Black Sea presence, it would give Russia needed port space. The lack of port space for exporting Russian materials and importing goods from abroad has been a long-term problem for Russia and although expansions are currently underway at many of Russia’s current ports, the facilities have been unable to keep up with demands. Plans are already in place to build a bridge from Russia to Crimea over the relatively narrow Strait of Kerch, giving Russia better access to Crimea’s ports. Presumably this bridge would also have the infrastructure to send electricity and gas to Crimea, which currently brings in most items needed for daily life from Ukrainian territory.
Should all of eastern Ukraine secede, Russia would likely have access to even more ports, including possibly Odessa, and may not need to invest in a major new bridge.
Further, the current government had already discussed country’s non-aligned status and seek a NATO Membership Action Plan. So, it is possible that Ukraine might join NATO anyway under its current government (which has also pledged to make “unpopular decisions”) and removing Ukraine’s ports before allowing it to join would greatly weaken its value as a military country.
Russia would still have many Russians inside what was left of Ukraine to consider. Russia is currently working on simplified citizenship for Russians in Ukraine, which would allow them to more easily emigrate from that country.
4) Absorbing New Territory through Referendums
Russia is also currently considering new legislation that would simplify the procedure for joining the Russian Federation. Given the legislation’s timing, Russia is likely considering the possibility of not only encouraging independence for at least some of Ukraine’s territories, but also absorbing them by having the territories themselves move to join Russia.
The difference between the economic and geopolitical costs of this option may not be significantly greater than the third option. Russia would already face accusations of de factoannexing the territory. Although this may increase the argument for Ukraine to intervene militarily if aided by its allies (see above for discussion of war), Russia will still have the argument that the process was carried out by the will of the local people under at least semi-legal, democratic pretexts. So, actually annexing it will probably carry similar consequences to de facto annexation. Annexing the territory will also give the greatest assurances that its imperatives will be achieved.
Should Russia absorb these territories, it might also consider absorbing Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and possibly even Transdnestria, which, in the case Russia also takes Odessa, would then share a border with Russia.
Russia will expect to achieve its imperatives in any solution reached. It will demand deep assurances concerning the naval base in Sevastopol and deep changes to Ukraine’s government to ensure the self-rule of self-identifying Russians living in Ukraine. Russia is likely to offer de-escalation of the situation and perhaps aid, likely offered through an international organization. It will likely continue to encourage referendums in various regions to continue to improve its position.
War is likely not an option for either side. Russia is still a large, nuclear power, as is Europe and the US. War would create very high costs and unsure outcomes for all sides.
However, at this point, Russia has already incurred costs and, given the possibility of pushing through independence or absorption of Russian-heavy and anti-Maidan territories relatively quickly, it may be more geopolitically expedient at this time to follow through with them. While this does not mean that Russia cannot be negotiated with at this time, it does mean that its position at the table is strong and it will likely use this to its advantage.
Josh Wilson is the Assistant Director of the School of Russian and Asian Studies. He is also the editor of the SRAS newsletter, director of SRAS’s Projects initiative and editor-in-chief for Vestnik: The Journal of Russian and Asian Studies. In addition, he serves as Communications Consultant to Alinga Consulting Group, and General Editor for the US-Russia Chamber of Commerce of New England.