Thursday, March 6, 2014

Crimean War Redux

By Guest Contributor Joel Klein
MA Candidate in International Affairs, Boston University

Kerry and Lavrov face off
Recently my fellow graduate student at BU and editor of this blog Vicky wrote an excellent piece on Russia’s invasion of Crimea. While a self-admitted non-expert on Europe or the Former Soviet Union her piece has some excellent analysis and is well worth the read. However as someone who aspires to be an expert on Russia and the Former Soviet Union I wanted to add my 2 cents partly as rebuttal but mostly to inform especially considering our media’s awful coverage. In many ways Vicky and I agree on the many of the United States foreign policy failures and problems in President Obama’s second term. I agree with Vicky’s Meta analysis, our grand strategy is non-existent and the second term National Security process is a disaster. I blame much of this on Obama’s poor second term national security team which possess few independent strategic thinkers.

What many are accurately calling Europe’s most dangerous crisis since the Cold War is a direct result of issues unsettled after the end of that particular “War”. This process along with recent blunders by the EU in particular, but also the United States and Russia, has brought us to this point. For this article I do not comment on these wider international relations issues but analyze the interests of Russia in initiating the Crimean crisis and the potential Western response.


In the aftermath of Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s violent crackdown on protestors in Kiev amidst violent resistance, Yanukovych was forced to flee and a revolutionary government took power. In response, on February 28th Russia began occupying the Crimean Peninsula, reinforcing troops already there and taking effective control of Crimea.

Russia's core interest is not just control over Crimea and the Sevastopol naval base but influence over all of Ukraine. They have material political, economic, and military interests in the country along with non-material interests of history and culture. Ukraine is an existential concern to Russia, its Jerusalem if you will, birthplace of the Russian civilization more than 1000 years ago! Russia’s action is also a reaction to the Post-Cold War project of NATO expansion in the former Soviet Union and former Warsaw Pact states. The West has expanded to Russia’s border, creating a security dilemma and fear of encirclement. Some of this is paranoia and some is well founded, and the revolution in Kiev (which technically was a coup) confirmed and activated all these fears. Moscow believed it was losing the country to a Western-backed coup and that Ukraine would become an enemy and Western proxy. Ultimately they believed their interests were being ignored and that in the future their influence would be rolled back and eliminated entirely.

So what is Russia's strategy? To draw its own red line concerning what the West can and cannot do in its sphere of influence, i.e. the entire Post-Soviet Space. They wish to pushback on what they see as Western expansionism and maintain their hegemony in post-Soviet Eurasia. I believe the seizure of Crimea is also a bargaining strategy to force the new government to include pro-Russian politicians, respect Russian interests, and gain greater autonomy for Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. In addition they will hope to gain an unlimited lease on the Sevastopol naval base and greater flexibility to deploy and expand naval forces there. The longer-term objective is not necessarily annexation of Crimea or Eastern Ukraine (as some suggest) but to destabilize the current government and install a pro-Russian regime.

Western options:

Militarily I don't think we can do much. Many of former Admiral Stavridis ideas are quite sensible but our military options are limited and shows of force are next to useless. During our previous show of force in the Black Sea (for the Olympics) the FFG-7 class frigate USS Taylor ran aground. Suffice it to say Moscow will just ignore similar shows of force; this isn't Iraq, Iran, Serbia, or any other minor power we have crushed or intimidated in the past. This is a nuclear superpower with a still considerable conventional military one that’s been heavily reformed and strengthened over the last six years. I very much agree with Vicky in this regard, a war with Russia would be suicidal. Even attempts to use limited force are far too dangerous because of escalatory issues and thankfully our leaders have taken this option off the table.

Economically the United States has little leverage with bilateral trade at around 1% of total trade, investment is limited, and most of the Russian elite’s money is in Europe. Russia is the EU’s third largest trade partner, slightly behind China and the United States, with total trade worth $460 billion and EU to Russia exports worth $170 billion. Bilateral investment is also large and as mentioned the EU (London and Cyprus in particular) is where Russia’s elite park their money. Again this is not Iran; sanctions of any kind would be like Europe cutting off its nose to spite its face as every EU member’s economy would take a hit.

Widespread sanctions could have reverberations throughout the world economy. Restricting gas exports by Russia is unlikely for no other reason than that they need the money. If they do I’m less sanguine the US could step in until 2015 as we lack the infrastructure to export or enough capacity to make up the shortfall. That leaves limited measures like asset seizures and financial sanctions but these would likely invite retaliation from Russia in the form of import restrictions and seizure of Western assets.  Germany in particular receives 40% of its gas and 20% of its oil from Russia and exports $52 billion in goods to Russia. The UK is the destination of most of the Russian elites billions while along with Germany is a major investor in Russia. Both have already essentially ruled out any significant sanctions in the short term and even if this crisis escalates are likely to do little.

This is only rational as mutual economic destruction holds sway while the impact on Russian domestic politics is uncertain. For simplicity’s sake the Russian elite can be divided into two groups, men of power (security services) the siloviki and men of money the famous oligarchs along with civil service administrators (and yes they are all men). At the moment the siloviki are dominant and many of those closest to Putin have limited investments abroad and Putin has long tried to crack down on those that do, hoping to bring those billions back home. Western sanctions are likely to be symbolic and ineffective, while more serious ones could have the opposite intended effect creating solidarity among the elite and pushing them closer to Putin and his circle or no effect at all.

Political options where this began and where it will end. At the heart of any U.S./Western response is our interest/resolve asymmetry with Russia. By this I don’t mean silly arguments like if only we bombed Syria, Putin would have known Obama was a real man and would never have invaded. By this I mean the existential interest Russia has in Ukraine compared to our limited interests, which boils down to our support for the spread of democracy. As such Russia knows our cost-benefit calculations limit our desire to escalate or impose significant costs on Russia. In comparison Putin’s options are nearly unlimited, as he has already demonstrated he is willing to use force, bear the costs, and, if necessary, escalate further.

The solution is a return to the Feb. 21 agreement to form an interim unity government followed by elections. The US, EU, and Russia all worked together to end the violence against the protestors with President Putin personally pressuring Yanukovych to negotiate. However, this agreement was overturned when he fled and now needs to be reinstated. Secondly, a Finlandization of Ukraine may be necessary. By this I mean NATO membership would be dropped while Ukraine would become neutral internationally not participating in any political bloc.

Decentralization of political power within Ukraine including possible federalization is also needed. Ukraine’s political institutions are one of the major causal factors for Ukraine’s perennial political crises, especially its centralized, unitary system of rule. This encourages factions from Western or Eastern regions to try to dominate the other, despite lacking a majority. Much of this has been signaled by Russia as a way out of this crisis but the United States and Ukraine seem to be ignoring this potential solution.

There is still considerable danger in this crisis as Russia could lose control or their coercive strategy may fail and the result could be full-scale war. If Russia does decide to annex Crimea there is little the West can do as Russia has the better position. It is important to keep this crisis in perspective, even a Russian “win” over Ukraine will have no impact on the distribution of power and hierarchy in the international system. Russia alone does not have the economic, demographic, or technological power resources to challenge the United States. Avoiding overreaction and escalation is the West’s primary goal, treating Russia as an enemy will only push them into a tighter alliance with China and that would be a threat to the US position.

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