Why the Crimea incursion has boosted Moscow's leverage in Ukraine standoff

Analysis: Is there a method in Putin's madness?

A Ukrainian soldier at the Belbek military base stands on alert anticipating a possible Russian attack on March 3, 2014 in Lubimovka, Ukraine.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Everyone knows how much President Vladimir Putin loves preening for the camera, but he may be willing to sacrifice the vanity photo opportunity of hosting a G-8 summit in pursuit of Russian strategic goals in Ukraine. The immediate diplomatic cost of Russia's incursion into Crimea has been the suspension by NATO countries of planning for a G-8 summit Putin was set to host in Sochi this summer.  

The emphasis, thus far, on symbolic rebukes is a reminder of how little NATO powers can do to expel Russia from a territory in which it has a deeply entrenched military presence and can probably count on substantial local civilian support. There's no serious military option, and even economic leverage is limited by Western Europe’s dependence on Russian energy supplies. Germany and other European powers reportedly resisted U.S.-led calls for sanctions during consultations in Brussels on Monday. 

The strategic logic behind Moscow's Ukraine intervention prioritizes geopolitical control of Moscow's neighborhood — it's "near abroad" in Kremlin parlance — over glad-handing with Western leaders. Indeed, according to Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Dimitri Trenin, Russia has seized control of Crimea precisely because it saw the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich as a symptom of Western malfeasance and encroachment in its backyard, leading to "a fundamental reassessment of Russian policy in Ukraine, and vis-à-vis the West."

Russia views the politics of its "near abroad" principally through the prism of NATO's steady expansion toward its borders through the 1990s; the overriding strategic priority of preventing Ukraine from aligning itself with a hostile political-military alliance has long guided the Kremlin's often ham-fisted responses to developments in Kiev. It can live with an autonomous Ukraine only if that Ukraine stays out of NATO's orbit, and in Yanukovich's ouster it saw the specter of Ukraine falling into the Western military and economic orbit. If what it calls a "coup" in Kiev can't be reversed, Moscow's next best option may be to limit the territory controlled by the pro-Western regime, empower those resisting it and create a crisis that keeps Kiev off balance. This militates against any economic recovery and makes Ukraine a less enticing prospect for incorporation into the European Union. 

Even if the threat of being shunned by the West has serious consequences for the oligarchic business elite that has prospered under Putin, it doesn't alter the fundamentals of national strategy in Moscow. Indeed, the very Western powers that are threatening to isolate Russia are portrayed in the Kremlin's nationalist narrative as hostile powers bent on destroying what remains of a once-great Russian power. 

"In Moscow, there is a growing fatigue with the West, with the EU and the United States," Trenin writes. "Their role in Ukraine is believed to be particularly obnoxious." Trenin believes the rupture between Russia and the West over Ukraine signals the onset of a new Cold War. "Russia will no doubt pay a high price for its apparent decision to 'defend its own' and 'put things right' " in Ukraine, he writes, "but others will have to pay their share, too."

Reckoning with consequences

Neither Moscow nor the NATO powers have reckoned with the consequences of their Ukraine policies, according to Anatol Lieven, a war studies professor at Kings College in London and author of Ukraine: A Fraternal Rivalry. Restoring Yanukovich to power would require a full-blown invasion and occupation of a hostile western Ukraine, he writes, which would result in “horrendous bloodshed, a complete collapse of Russia’s relations with the West and of Western investment in Russia, a shattering economic crisis and Russia’s inevitable economic and geopolitical dependency on China.”

At the same time, Lieven warns, “Western governments, too, have put themselves in an extremely dangerous position. They have acquiesced to the overthrow of an elected government by ultra-nationalist militias, which have also chased away a large part of the elected parliament. This has provided a perfect precedent for Russian-backed militias in turn to seize power in the east and south of the country.”

In doing so, Russia has created new political facts on the ground it sees as balancing those created by its adversaries in Kiev. "After being wrong-footed on Ukraine's economic future, Mr. Yanukovich's survivability and Maidan's durability," writes former Assistant Secretary of State PJ Crowley, "Vladimir Putin has regained his leverage and time and space to undermine this revolution just like he did in 2005, which is what the past few days are really all about."

The prospect for armed confrontation could escalate sharply, however, if Russia tries to extend its new facts on the ground to strongly Russian cities in eastern Ukraine such as Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odessa. Even if Kiev remained reluctant to order its army into a war that Russia would likely win — albeit at heavy cost — the ultranationalist militias that helped bring down Yanukovich may have their own ideas. (This is a continent, after all, where an assassination by a secessionist gunman in Sarajevo in 1914 provided the spark for a conflagration that killed 37 million people.)

So, while the U.S. will take the lead in castigating Putin, Germany looks set to play the good cop. Chancellor Angela Merkel has opened a dialogue with Putin, whom she says has agreed to the creation of a contact group and fact-finding mission aimed at calming the situation. Moscow, of course, would prefer to avoid confrontation, but the events of the past week suggest it's unlikely to do so by sacrificing its strategic priorities. Russia has dramatically escalated the crisis; the priority now for much of Western Europe has become to de-escalate. And that means Russia's dramatic intervention in Crimea may have given the Kremlin more influence over Ukraine’s geopolitical destiny than it had a short week ago.

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