Back in 1944, the Soviet armies executed a swift strategic campaign aimed at defeating the Nazi occupation forces and liberating Ukraine. Seventy years on, Ukraine is facing another major strategic standoff, this time between Russia, the new regime in Kiev, and NATO.
It started as a popular protest against widespread corruption, paralysis of the judicial system and the continuous power struggle between competing oligarchic clans. It has now turned into the most serious political-military crisis Europe has seen since August 2008, when Russia and Georgia clashed over Southern Ossetiya and Abkhazia.
For the third time in six years, Moscow is using its military in support of its strategic objectives along the periphery of the former Soviet Union and in areas of vital importance to Russia (Eastern Mediterranean). The deployment of Russian forces across the Crimean Peninsula occurred at a time when Russia was staging its largest wargames in the western strategic theatre, involving over 150,000 troops, 880 main battle tanks, over 200 combat and support aircraft, and more than 80 warships and auxiliaries.
By using force on the Ukrainian territory, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has forced both the interim authorities in Kiev, and leaders in Brussels and Washington, to think seriously about the post-Cold War Ukrainian agenda and where Crimea sits within Russia’s contemporary strategic calculus. While playing a sensitive game of brinkmanship, Putin has left western powers with few options.
Should hostilities begin, Russia would have little problem neutralising the Ukrainian military. While inheriting a considerable portion of its legacy Soviet forces and equipment, today the Ukrainian army is poorly trained and equipped. The problems in the Ukrainian military are highlighted by the effective calling-off of the much publicised national mobilisation after only about 1.5% of all enlisted reservists responded to the call. Cases of desertion were also reported. In Crimea, over 5,000 troops, including three air defence regiments, one air force brigade and some other units, defected to the local authorities and refused to follow orders of the interim government in Kiev. The Ukrainian military has no power or will to challenge the Russians.
However, it’s not just Ukraine that’s unwilling to meet Russian force with force. It seems that neither European NATO partners nor the United States are prepared to flex their muscles. The prospect of engaging a nuclear superpower with the world’s largest arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons makes any military counter action a distant prospect. For now, the US and Canada have ceased any military cooperation with Moscow and have withdrawn (along with six other members) from planning the June G8 Summit in Sochi. NATO’s considering a more consolidated approach to freezing its defence dialogue with Russia. The threat of economic sanctions is on the cards. However, the effect may be limited and mutually harmful, particularly for the European Union— Russia’s third largest trading partner. Moscow could turn to Beijing and other partners to make up for the losses. Adding to that, Russia is likely to intensify already rising defence cooperation with China, and seek similar arrangements with other countries. On that, it’s worth noting that Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu last week announced that Moscow was close to reaching agreements with Singapore, Vietnam, Venezuela, Seychelles and a few other nations on allowing Russian warships and long-range aircraft to be stationed or replenished on their territories.
The strategic logic of Russian pre-emptive action is clear. Moscow doesn’t want to take any more chances of seeing Ukraine sliding into the western sphere of influence and eventually becoming a new NATO member. Russia wants to see, if not a friendly, then at least a neutral and pragmatic regime in Kiev, which wouldn’t seek political and military integration with Western Europe and the US at Russia’s expense.
By reinforcing its firm grip on Crimea, Russia is making clear that it won’t abandon this strategically important area which has played a pivotal role in the nation’s push to resolve the so-called ‘Eastern Dilemma’— securing uncontested access to the Mediterranean and the Middle East for the first time since the reign of Peter the Great.
The side effect of these actions was the sudden rise of pro-Russian political activism in eastern and south eastern Ukraine, which includes not just major coal mining and industrial centres (Donetsk and Kharkov) but also the country’s principal seaports (Odessa) and shipyards (Nikolayev). If these regions manage to obtain a high level of autonomy from Kiev with Russia’s support, as Crimea is likely to, the geopolitical and economic value of Ukraine to the US and Western Europe would be considerably reduced.
Back in 2007, while speaking at the Munich security conference, Putin detailed Russian concerns on the transformation of the geo-strategic environment in Europe and Asia. He also made a rather blunt statement about Russia’s version of the Monroe Doctrine with respect to the Eurasian geopolitical space. The problem for western political elites was (and still is) that none took a serious note of Putin’s message. By mobilising troops in Crimea and by sending a blunt message that it will use force in defence of its national interests, Moscow is trying to signal western powers that it’s displaying nothing more than great power behaviour in the fragile strategic environment by clearly marking its sphere of influence. Recent remarks by Putin have had little impact on diffusing tensions.
By making a few key moves, Putin has placed his Ukrainian and western counterparts in a stalemate situation. One way or another, Russia’s long-standing concerns over Ukraine won’t be ignored anymore. Western nations have little space for political manoeuvring, except to continue a difficult but important dialogue with Moscow. Alienating a UNSC permanent member, a nation with the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal and the sixth largest economy is unlikely to calm the turbulent waters of the contemporary geopolitical environment.
Alexey Muraviev is the Head of Department of Social Sciences and International Studies at Curtin University. Image courtesy of Flickr user BenoitBalanca.