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Russia, Ukraine, Crimea – look on the bright side, the end of the Putin era is beginning…

March 14, 2014

Summary:  The Crimea is returning to Russia in the short-term.  Thats tough, but Ukraine can rise above it all in the longer-term through political and economic reform.  Who knows, maybe Crimeans will be begging to come back in ten years.  But dangerous ethnic and nationalistic impulses, easily unleashed, will be very hard to control – and some groups may not want to control them.  Is Putin ignoring the golden rule of history: “Never invade Russia”…?  

map ukraine-linguistic-divisionI think it was Malcom McLaren, the manager of the Sex Pistols, who justified the band’s untimely demise by noting that a brilliant idea poorly executed was always better than a poor idea brilliantly done.  I think Vladimir Putin has stumbled upon the latter concept.

Troop recognition part 1 - Crimean local militia

Troop recognition part 1 – Crimean local militia

On this coming Sunday, in a wholly illegal referendum, the Crimea will almost certainly become a part of Russia.   To be honest, I was impressed by the speed and confidence of the operation – and the sheer front to deny that the soldiers were not from the Russian Army.  But the discipline, the organisation, the propaganda and media campaign that swung into action.  It is genuinely impressive that a major clash between Ukrainian and Russian ground troops was averted in the confused, bizarre and rapid shift of power that took place in the Crimea in a matter of hours.

When the Crimea is embraced to the bosom of its protector, this poses many problems, perhaps most immediately for the Ukrainian forces holed up in their bases who now become the foreign invading force – as I am sure the Russian government will waste no time in pointing out.  But there is a broader and longer-term concern for the something like 40% of the population who will wake up on the morning of Monday 17th to find they are in a new country – and one, judging by the clashes in the Crimea and eastern provinces of Ukraine and the very hostile language “ultra-nationalists, fascists and anti-Semites” (none of those groups in Russia, obviously), that doesn’t like them very much.

Troop recognition, part 2 - these are Russian Army

Troop recognition, part 2 – Russian Army

Many had thought this was an accident waiting to happen, particularly after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008:

July 2009 – FRIDE Policy Brief “Crimea: Next Flashpoint in the European Neighbourhood?”

November 2010 – Jamestown Foundation “The Crimea: Europe’s Next Flashpoint?”

(also simultaneously demonstrating how unimaginative academic analytical titles can be…)

An intensely annoying article in the Guardian by Marina Lewycka usefully reminded us that a very similar Russian/Ukraine confrontation over the status of the Crimea – albeit without the ultimate invasion – took place in 1993.

I don’t think there is any way that the Crimea is going to rejoin Ukraine anytime soon.

But a brilliant coup de main like this needs a game plan that involved the months and years to come.  I think the key ”solutions” to the Russia/Ukraine conflict lie in the non-violent long-term and somewhere within the following two thoughtful articles.  The Economist highlights the longer term economic and political direction for the region, suggesting that, unfortunately, the Ukraine people will probably just have to accept the loss of Crimea but success lies in democratic and economic reform, with the help of the West and the EU.  Once the 60% ethnic Russians excitement of becoming officially Russian has died down, an economic future with Russia may not be as attractive as they think – if, indeed, they have actually begun to think of it at all yet:

“The least-bad course for Kiev is painfully to accept that, for now, Crimea is lost, in fact though not in law. That means negotiating a peaceful exit for those besieged Ukrainian servicemen. And for the Tatars, a put-upon Crimean minority loth to live under Russian rule (having been deported en masse by Stalin in 1944), it means securing as much protection as Ukraine and its allies can muster. After that, Ukraine’s priorities should be to stage free elections in what remains of the country, install a legitimate national government, revamp the economy and create durable democratic institutions…The West’s other task—and the best strategy for restoring Crimea to Ukraine—is to help it…in effect, a mini-Marshall Plan. With luck and time, the people of Crimea will look north at a prosperous democracy and push to rejoin it.

Further to this, an article by Alexander Motyl in Foreign Affairs, highlights the sheer expense of propping up “Ukraine’s rustbelt”:

“…the hypernationalism generated by the war and the enthusiasm over territorial expansion would soon fade as the sobering reality in these provinces sinks in and Russians realize just whom and what they have annexed…In their search to maintain control, Russians would quickly discover that they are in possession of economically unviable provinces that cannot survive without massive infusions of rubles…annexation will bring an extremely disaffected population into Russia’s fold. The people could passively resist Russian rule. They could also take up arms…Popular disaffection will make it difficult for Putin to walk away. Tens of thousands of Russian troops will have to remain as occupiers for a long time to come — an expensive proposition that could run into billions of dollars annually. And Russia will not be able to neglect the region’s economy, since doing so would only increase disaffection and resistance…

There are two major variables – one largely within Putin’s control, one almost certainly without- that should be considered.

  • A Russian decision to grab other pieces of eastern Ukraine makes the possibility of a land conflict between the two countries much more likely, much more bloody and much less predictable.  It is difficult to see the Ukrainian armed forces failing to respond, despite being out-matched.  It may be that the Russians find it hard to control the pro-Russian sentiments that they have aroused in Kharkhov and Donetsk.
  • A Serb "helping" with peacekeeping duties in the Crimea.  Just in case you thought the Balkan wars parallels were not prominent enough...

    A Serb “helping” with peacekeeping duties in the Crimea. Just in case you thought the Balkan wars parallels were not prominent enough…

    I am most worried about the “Pandora’s box” of aggressive nationalist sentiment that looks to have been released.  Where did all this hate suddenly burst out from?  As we saw in the Balkans, some strands of revisionist history can trigger – quite unnecessarily – some of the most dangerous and violent confrontations and human rights abuses.   It might suit the Russian government to encourage slurs of “fascism” to be thrown around, but, once the Russian Special Forces have been withdrawn the real problems will begin.  Local Crimean militias (doubtless highly trained professionals with a wealth of people-centric “hearts and minds” skills who have been carefully vetted to ensure ethnic and political balance and to filter out all the criminals, bullies and nationalist thugs) are being established.  When they start patrolling and settling scores (and perhaps provoking one or two new ones), is when low-level resistance is most likely to start.  These things cannot be switched off easily and it works both ways.

My parting shot is that George Friedman’s book “The Next Hundred Years” suggested that Russia and China, over the next 10 years (in the case of Russia) and 20 years (in the case of China) would slowly implode under the weight of their own contradictions.  Growing middle classes want growing and fairer political representation, economic growth, freedom of expression, social security and, yes, even, dependable pensions.  Putin’s Russia would kind of fizzle out with some unpleasant military/nationalist posturings and aggressions on its border with Europe.

Many things can spiral out of control, as I have suggested here, and even “unpleasant military/nationalist posturings” can be bloody and protracted.  But I think the Putin decline is well under way now.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2014 4:28 pm

    Powerful analysis and commentary, Tim. I’ll forward it. I have felt for a few years that Russia would implode demographically, at least. Also, the sheer inefficiency of its economy beset with monstrous graft and reliance mostly on extracting minerals, bodes ill for the nation. There is no Silicon Valley, no highly productive farmland (except in the neighboring Ukraine) The current fertility rate is 1.61 children per woman. A country needs 2.1 c/w to remain in equilibrium, assuming no net migration. The total population is currently declining only at a small rate due to an influx of immigrants, mostly ethnic Russians form former states of the USSR. Finally, the life expectancy at birth for males and females is very large: male: 64.37 years; female: 76.3 years. The birth rate is 11.87 births/1,000 population and the death rate is 13.83 deaths/1,000 population. (Source for all figures, CIA World Factbook, online)

  2. anon permalink*
    March 15, 2014 12:22 pm

    The Donetz basin supplies today key elements in Russian defense production. No military factories in the USSR were rust belt – the military economy operated (and still does) totally outside the civilian economy. The Donetz basin is not going to become a part of NATO or the EU. Too much Russian blood was spilled over it.

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