International

Russian invasion of Crimea in no one’s interest

Analysts say prospect of sparking regional war makes Russian intervention a last resort

Pro-Russian supporters rally outside the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol on Friday.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Armed men on Friday stormed two airports in the Crimean Peninsula, an autonomous ethnic Russian stronghold in Ukraine, the day after another group of men seized Crimea’s regional parliament and replaced the Ukrainian flag with a Russian one. 

The incidents, which come two days after Russia staged provocative military drills along its borders with Ukraine and placed 150,000 troops on high alert, have sparked a firestorm of paranoia, from Kiev to Washington, that Russia is plotting to reclaim the peninsula given to Ukraine by the Soviet Union in 1954 — a symbolic gift that officially became part of the country after the communist bloc collapsed in 1991.

“I can only describe this as a military invasion and occupation,” Ukraine’s new interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said on Friday, implying that the armed men who seized the airports were Russian and that rumored military intervention had already begun.

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Since Viktor Yanukovich was deposed as president on Sunday after months of fiery demonstrations in Kiev’s Independence Square, Russia has been reeling in a geopolitical defeat of Cold War proportions. Ukraine’s so-called democratic revolution, which called for greater European integration and rejected a Kremlin-led Eurasian trade union, marked a dramatic shift toward the West for a former Soviet state that Russia had painstakingly sought to pull back into its orbit.

Political wrangling and economic bribery backfired in Ukraine, and many now suspect destabilizing Ukraine through coercion is next on Russia’s agenda. But would Russia really intervene in Ukraine and risk a prolonged, internecine war with a country whose future is still so uncertain?

In a phone call Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry asked his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, that very question and was roundly informed that Russia had no such plans, as it has repeatedly insisted. Still, Kerry said, “we want to see in the next days ahead that the choices Russia makes conform to this affirmation we received today.”

Whether Wednesday’s military exercises were coincidence or provocation, Ukraine is understandably on edge. An autonomous, majority-Russian enclave, Crimea has long been a separatist flash point, and it plays host to Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet — an opportune launching point for military intervention in Ukraine. Like much of the country’s east and south, the peninsula has close linguistic and economic ties with Russia, and about 60 percent of the area’s 2 million inhabitants are ethnic Russians — the highest proportion in all of Ukraine.

Russia has a track record of intervening on the side of separatists in former Soviet states. It did so in Georgia in 2008, on behalf of separatists in the breakaway region of South Ossetia, and it has deployed about 1,200 “peacekeeping” troops to protect ethnic Russians in the semi-autonomous Moldovan region of Transnistria. In these regions, Russia has used force to undermine the stability of otherwise West-facing nations, challenging their sovereignty and impeding European integration, said Joerg Forbrig, an Eastern Europe expert with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. That has been Russia’s goal in Ukraine all along.

Still, Forbrig and other analysts would take Lavrov at his word. The motives for intervention are there, but it remains an absolute last resort.

For one, Russia still has other cards in its deck if it wants to reassert influence in Kiev. Moscow might be Ukraine’s best option for an economic bailout — it urgently needs $35 billion to avoid collapse — and there are other, more subtle ways to drive a wedge into Russia’s separatist divide. Forbrig said there have been reports that Russian civil society organizations and political parties are already sending volunteers to Crimea who, many suspect, will work to mobilize support for a referendum on Crimean independence. “For the time being, Russia will try its hand at political engineering,” he said.

The last thing Russia wants is an unstable southwestern neighbor, and even the cleanest Russian operation in Crimea could unravel the peace in Ukraine. However fragile Kiev’s newly formed interim government, hard-line nationalist elements among them would not stand to see Ukraine’s territorial integrity violated by Russia and would undoubtedly push to deploy its large, NATO-trained military. 

The worst case scenario for Russian intervention in Crimea is that it sparks a chain reaction of unrest across former Soviet states caught — like Ukraine — between Russia and the West, luring Western powers into the fold.

If an isolated war broke out in Crimea, the U.S. and its NATO allies would initially be reluctant to get involved — as they were in Georgia in 2008, analysts say. The countries that make up NATO are cash strapped and war weary, disinclined to engage on the battlefield with a nuclear power like Russia. Europe gets 30 percent of its natural gas from Russia — by way of a pipeline through Ukraine — so avoiding regional conflict is also an economic imperative.

“If Russia acts, this is what they may be banking on,” said Forbrig. “But the picture is different if you see separatism spreading and if there’s a serious threat of Ukraine being split up.”

“Both Ukraine and Russia have a strong incentive to not let this happen,” said Kimberly Marten, a Russia and Eurasia expert at Columbia University. “If you have Ukraine break into pieces, then other countries that have held together will have a strong incentive to look at their own arrangements. It could be the flare that leads to massive violence and conflict not only in Ukraine but elsewhere in the post-Soviet space.”

Others have noted that overt irredentism in Crimea could backfire on Russia at home, where China might cite the interests of a massive ethnic Chinese population in eastern Siberia as grounds for reclaiming the area’s water, mineral resources and fertile farmland.

“Down the road, as demographic pressures mount and Russian resources beckon, a Russian doctrine of the ethnic adjustments of Russian borders could provide Beijing with a useful model,” Timothy Snyder wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

These and other calculated fears seem enough to deter Russian military action, for now. But as Ukraine has demonstrated over the past week, things can change quickly. 

Ukrainian security forces and Euromaidan activists have been good about reining in unnecessary violence against pro-Russian protesters thus far, but an isolated attack on an ethnic Russian could stir things up and force Russia to intervene. If that happens, “it would be very difficult for Russia to stand back and not do anything,” said Marten.

That possibility strikes fear into Ukraine’s new leaders. A prolonged Russian-backed breakaway effort by Crimea would pose a serious obstacle in Ukraine’s path toward European integration, the underpinnings of its recent revolution.

In that event, Forbrig suggests Ukraine might have to look beyond Crimea and not lose sight of the broader goals demonstrators fought and in some cases lost their lives for in Independence Square.

“Ukraine should look to Georgia, where (the breakaway regions of) South Ossetia and Abkhazia have not prevented the government from forging a strong path and ties to the West,” said Forbrig. “If Ukraine allows Crimea to be a stumbling block for any reform or for closer relations with Europe, then they’re basically doing exactly what Russia intended.”

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