02 March 2014

Some observations on the Russia-Ukraine crisis

I have to admit to being startled by the developments of the last few days; the downside of Russian military intervention in Ukraine seemed so obvious that I did not expect it at all.  That Putin is attempting such a high-risk gambit suggests that he has either (a) greatly misjudged the situation or (b) is a less rational actor than we've believed -- perhaps both.

So far, the Russian invasion is confined to Crimea.  Crimea is a peninsula barely attached to the mainland and with only a light Ukrainian military presence, and thus difficult for Ukraine to defend or reconquer; Russia's naval base at Sevastopol (retained since Soviet times despite the awkwardness of now being on foreign soil) has given the invaders an advantage.

It's possible, by the way, that Putin's move is widely supported by the Russian people, at least for now.  Russian state-controlled media have claimed that the invasion was necessitated by threats to ethnic Russians living in Crimea; this is a blatant lie, but it may take a while for objective news to filter into the Russian mass public mind through non-controlled channels such as the internet.  More alarmingly, there's nothing to stop Putin from manufacturing the same claims about ethnic Russians elsewhere in Ukraine, if he wants to broaden the invasion (claims of Russian rights being under siege were given credibility by the new Ukrainian government's stupid move, now rescinded, of stripping Russian of its status as a official language).  Some of the Russian public and media are not quite on board, though.

Ironically, it's very likely that if a referendum were held in Crimea, the option of leaving Ukraine and joining Russia would have won fairly anyway.  58% of Crimea's population is ethnic Russian (not ethnic Ukrainians who just speak Russian, as pretty much all Ukrainians do).  Putin is risking war for a prize that might well have been his by peaceful means anyway.

Another demographic point is that 12% of Crimea's population is Tatar.  The Tatars' native language is a form of Turkish and they are traditionally Muslim, though now heavily secularized as most ex-Soviet populations are.  They are fiercely opposed to Russian rule, largely due to the brutal persecution they suffered under Stalin.  Their presence raises the possibility of Turkey -- a NATO member with a large, powerful military trained and equipped by the US -- taking an interest in the conflict.  Turkey has intervened before when a Turkic population was threatened, actually invading Cyprus in 1974 to carve out a mini-state for the ethnic Turks there.

Ukraine is mobilizing its military, which at full strength (including reserves) is a formidable force of over 1,200,000 men.  As noted above, logistics and geography would make the reconquest of Crimea difficult, but if Putin invades other areas of Ukraine, all-out war seems inevitable.

There is an unfortunate circumstance that somewhat undermines our country's moral standing in this crisis.  Putin has invaded another country without provocation, using a trumped-up pretext based on blatant lies.  Unfortunately, that description is also true of President Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.  I can hardly wait for this point to occur to Russia's propagandists -- not that they'll admit Putin is a liar, but the analogy will be useful to them.

Two wrongs don't make a right, of course.  What are our options?  Direct military intervention is out of the question.  As during the Cold War, direct conflict between Russian and American forces must be avoided because of the possibility of escalation, which is too dangerous to risk due to the huge nuclear arsenals on both sides.  Doing nothing (which includes ridiculous empty gestures like pulling out of the G8 summit) is also not an option -- as Poland's Prime Minister just pointed out, appeasing aggressive dictators is a strategy with a poor track record.

Economic sanctions seem like the best option.  Russia's economy is already in a slowdown, and really tough sanctions might precipitate a crisis severe enough that the resulting turmoil would bring down Putin's regime.  This would not be fast, though.  If Putin invades the rest of Ukraine and a prolonged war results, my preferred option would be the same strategy we used with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan -- all possible forms of support to the Ukrainians short of direct military involvement, to grind the Russians down in a war of attrition.  It's very questionable whether the Russian people, or perhaps even many Russian soldiers, would support a really bloody war against Ukraine.  Russians are very conscious of the close cultural and historical ties between the two nations.

I'm still hopeful that Putin won't launch a wider invasion,  He wanted to take over Ukraine intact, not have huge numbers of troops tied down for years occupying a sullen and restive country laid in ruins by war.  But the situation remains dangerous.  In the US, Republican politicians have already started irresponsibly slamming Obama for being "weak" because he hasn't rushed into some unspecified "action", as if the nuclear-armed Russian colossus were another Grenada.  This is what Republicans do; every crisis, no matter how serious, is just an opportunity to attack Obama.  And there may even be some value in it, since Putin will take Obama's threats more seriously if he sees that the US government is full of dangerous hotheads barely being kept under restraint.

But this crisis gives us more reason than ever to be glad that we have a calm and rational thinker as President.

Update:  It looks like the Russian economy is already paying a price for Putin's recklessness.


Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

Excellent analysis, Infidel--and like you, I'm glad that _this_ President is a calm and rational thinker.

I'm also wondering why some are writing columns giving the President advice on what to do--I mean, Obama is the President of the United States--and that means he has access (or should) to more information than the average citizen or the media (and Glenn Greenwald, for that matter....:). A situation like the one that is happening now is not resolved by blowing the hell out of Russia or sending in troops. It's entirely possible that Putin has overplayed his hand.

"I can hardly wait for this point to occur to Russia's propagandists -- not that they'll admit Putin is a liar, but the analogy will be useful to them." They've already started, I'm sure. And they've been quiet as church mice about the abuses of power that Putin has committed.

At any rate, thanks again for a well-written, well-thought out post. The situation is fluid and ever-changing, but the last thing we need right now is a headlong rush into an all-out shooting war between Russia and the rest of Europe, with the US becoming involved.

Just my 2-cents....

03 March, 2014 04:56  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Marc: Thanks! I'm sure Obama is getting the best information available and is well aware of the importance of avoiding direct war with Russia. I had been thinking of an alternate scenario where McCain had won in 2008 and Palin was now President and handling this. It's enough to give you the willies.

I think Putin probably didn't expect such a strong Western response (rhetorically at least -- no one has actually done anything yet). It may at least discourage him from moving into the rest of Ukraine.

03 March, 2014 06:51  
Blogger Tommykey said...

Another way to hurt Putin, though it would be very provocative, would be to start arming the Syrian resistance with whatever they needed to overthrow Assad, and in return a new Syrian government would kick the Russians out of their naval base in Tartus.

03 March, 2014 10:35  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Tommykey: That would certainly hurt, but it has the drawback that the Syrian "resistance" (a) consists of al-Qâ'idah and similar groups and (b) persecutes Christians (and Alawites).

03 March, 2014 11:51  

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