Putin's Crimean Gamble

(Originally published 3 March, 2014) 

Between the 21st and 23rd February we were talking of Putin’s impending political defeat in the wake of the Ukrainian revolution in Kiev. The reality is that the Crimean crisis is a potential diplomatic and political disaster for the United States, EU, NATO and the United Nations.

On the face of it, under international law, on so many different levels this intervention iswrong. The Russian Federation is defending its interests, but their are many other ways of protecting their interests which would not require the extremity of military force. Furthermore this intervention in Ukraine, ‘the greatest crisis in Europe we have seen’ according to our foreign minister Hague, will perplex many as it undermines the restraint and subtlety shown by Putin in Syria where the United States was halted in its tracks on carrying out a strike against Assad’s regime.

The Kremlin can argue that the United States condemnation of Russia particularly by Kerry, though justified in my opinion, were hypocritical in the light of the controversy of the United States’ foreign policy in the last decade or so. That also includes the United Kingdom. However in the case of Libya, they could argue that supporting the Libyan rebels removed despot Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The counter-argument to that is the grounds for the invasion of Iraq and the controversy surrounding the existence  of the WMDs. On top of that are the casualties sustained in Iraq and the failure that came with it (Iraq is in a worst state than which the U.S.A and United Kingdom entered it). We also forget the  U.S’s killing of Osama Bin Ladenwhich as Amnesty International states ‘was conducted under the US’s theory of a global armed conflict between the US and al-Qaeda in which the US does not recognise the applicability of international human rights law.’ It was a violation of Pakistani airspace, an illegal operation, even though his death was welcome to those across who have lost so much in the wake of his terrorist attacks. Simply put the West is culpable to similar controversies committed by their opponents across the international spectrum. Not to mention we should not forget that thus far the affair has been bloodless in comparison to the Western led operations.

The use of force is a mistake by Kremlin as the authorization of the deployment is that it has not only led to condemnation in the West, but also the threat of looming economic sanctions. They are unlikely to deter (even if they are deployed, the United Kingdom not even planning to impose trade sanctions) Putin as his grip tightens on the Crimea and holding Ukraine within his sphere of influence. NATO can do little as geo-politics and even if they chose to act upon the military option (which they won’t) military pragmatics are set firmly against them.

Like Poland in 1939, it is on the other-side of Europe out of reach, thousands of miles away from the United States; deploying military operations (even with NATO military bases scattered across Europe) when 150,000 Russian soldiers are already deployed on the borders of Ukraine, and already dug in the Crimea would incur heavy, unacceptable casualties. Putin, the Russians and the Crimea care more deeply about the outcome than the average citizen in the United Kingdom than we would be willing to risk or Europe would be willing to risk (one of them a potential European war). The Western powers have little economic, geographic, or some even moral leverage by which to outmaneuver the Russian Federation. Nevertheless in the UN Security Council, it was clear that Russia  faced a verbal onslaught by most members in face of byenlarge condemnation.

Ukraine will realistically not be saved by diplomacy and economic isolation nor can it realistically confront the Russian Army successfully. The former is better equipped, numerically superior, technically advanced, and also possessing considerable strategic initiative in the Crimea Ukraine’s forces all but surrounded. The Russian forces also potentially have their sights trained on Donetsk and Kharkiv (other Russian-speaking regions). To add insult to injury Ukraine cannot expect to join the EU when it has internal unresolved territorial disputes in the form of the Crimea, the pro-western government already has an unlikely future under such circumstances of combined economic, military and political pressure. As seen by the horrors of Syria, war would leave the country shattered and massively de-stabilise the region and benefit no one as the Russian bear wrestles with its overtly rebellious cub. 

As the United States and NATO retreat from the Middle East amidst the public divisions in individual countries over the necessity of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and the horrific losses that came with it. Military exhaustion, economic weakness, a lack of political will, and Putin’s masterminding of Russia’s return to the international stage as a serious power player have contributed to the West’s decline in the international theatre. 

Nevertheless the relationship between the Russian Federation and United States with NATO is at a crucial juncture in its history, and both hold the key (particularly Russia) to complications in the Middle East, particularly on the mediation of Iran’s nuclear programme and the ongoing Syrian Civil War. Putin’s actions though very much a decisive and well-played calculation will affect their relationship for many years to come, to the point perhaps that their may be a Second Cold War where the West and Russia would gain little.

For Russia this invasion to defend the human rights of ‘ethnic Russians’ will have consequences of the global stability and security structure (undermining the credibility of NATO and the United Nations) that has been tested since the end of the Second World War and Cold War. Sure, if the U.S.A national interests were threatened, hypothetically they would do the same as the Russians now, as shown by their willingness in the Pay of Bigs disaster and the Cuban Missile Crisis to occupy Cuba and many other scenarios during the Cold War. What would we do if our citizens were under threat?

You can hardly say the protests starting in November/December looked like an ultranationalist/fascist movement. They only became violent when fired upon and killed by the corrupt thug Yanukovych a few week ago and as I have re-iterated before no president or prime minister, no matter the fairness of their election in my view has to right to put down legitimate protests in such a manner and expect to remain in power.

If Russia and NATO were to engage in an economic conflict (highly likely) the capability of them to both cripple each other would be disastrous, a war cataclysmic. As seen already this week the crisis has impacted the Russian economy, the stock markets falling and the value of the rouble against the dollar at an all time low against the U.S dollar, whilst Russia holds the key to much of Europe’s gas supplies. The long-term winner would be Chinese dragon who have observed the ongoing Ukrainian crisis as a concerned but distant observer, more critical of the West’s bellicose than of Russia’s actions, but nonetheless distant.

The greatest impact  a potential Ukrainian-Russian war will have will be upon the U.S.A and the West already divided, suffering from post-economic stagnation, and deficits and now a identity crisis in their foreign policy. The consequences could see the end of the the United States as the world’s modern policeman as it recedes in influence across the globe with Russia standing to  gain another victory against the Obama administration. Make no mistake we are living and breathing historical times. I sincerely hope the Russian Federation backs down in the face of international scrutiny and that this current stand is corrected on what is unfolding in the Ukraine.

Matthew Williams