Putin's Move in Ukraine and Crimea

Putin's Move in Ukraine and Crimea
AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Events in Georgia in 2008 were to presage events in Ukraine later.  Russia’s actions in Georgia went unanswered.  Their intervention was quick, decisive, and brief and they got away with it.  There was no response of any substance from the United States or Europe.  Putin is, if nothing else, a manipulative and patient man and it came as a minor surprise when Russia made a move in another country six years later in Ukraine using many of the same tactics used in Georgia.

For hundreds of years, Crimea had been home to the Tatars who allied themselves with the Ottoman Empire until Catherine the Great came along.  In 1944, Stalin deported some 200,000 of them to Siberia, then imported Russians into the region to replenish the workforce.  After Stalin’s death, Khruschev transferred the Crimea to Ukrainian control.  The move was designed to curry favor with the Ukrainian Socialist Republic and solidify his role in the Kremlin power struggle after Stalin’s death.

In 2014, the Maidan revolution took place in Ukraine ousting a pro-Russian government.  The “revolution” had every opportunity to dig Putin’s grave, but his actions turned that eventuality on its head.  A poll showed that in 2014, 49% of Ukrainians had a relative living in Russia.  Ukraine’s link to Russia was not only cultural and economic, there were also family ties.  Events were depicted in a pessimistic and alarmist manner designed to contrast “normal” Russia and the hell that was Ukraine.

Crimea is a region dominated by Russian-speaking people because of events centuries ago.  They became fearful of living under a regime dominated by right wing nationalists.  They had lukewarm support for Ukraine’s independence from the start after the fall of the Soviet Union.  And while the Maidan “revolution” may have been against a corrupt government, the people of Crimea were also aware that there were ultra-nationalist elements among the protesters.  One group- the Right Sector- were proudly displaying flags and insignias associated with Nazi collaborators in Ukraine.  The people of Crimea came to see the revolution as “dangerous” and were looking for a savior.  Putin was all-too-willing to oblige.

In late February 2014, Putin made the decision to extricate the deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych from the country.  The following day, pro-Russian demonstrations broke out throughout Crimea and four days later masked Russian troops took over the Crimean parliament building leading to the installation of a pro-Russian government.  

It was not until the two major roads that lead from Crimea to Ukraine proper were cut off by masked soldiers and militia with no insignia that the world started to take notice.  Some journalists were stopped at the checkpoints and “greeted” to Russia.  By March 2, Russian forces moved out of Sevastopol.  Wearing no insignia and donning masks, Putin claimed they were local defense militias over which he had no control.  A month later, he conceded they were Russian soldiers.  In 16 days, the annexation had been completed in a short period of time with hardly a death as a result.

The relative calm after Maidan was shattered when NATO revealed that 40,000 Russian troops had amassed along the eastern border of Ukraine and were in a high state of readiness.  Heavily armed pro-Russian gunmen stormed government buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk, Horlivka, and Kramatorsk.  As in the case of Crimea, the gunmen were armed with Russian weapons, in masks, bearing no insignia, and moving with military precision.

A round of diplomatic efforts to end the hostilities eventually resulted in the Minsk II agreement.  It called for a ceasefire and a de-escalation of hostilities and the withdrawal of Russian military and hardware which was kind of funny since Putin insisted the Russian military was not present or involved in eastern Ukraine.  To date, the situation has not been resolved and a series of battles has been the norm.

The US and Great Britain claimed the action violated the Budapest Agreement of Understanding on Security Assurances which forbade the use or threat of military force against an independent country.  Russia dismissed these accusations given the “complex internal processes” in Crimea.  

Unlike eastern Ukraine, Crimea is the only part of Ukraine where ethnic Russians make up the majority of the population.  In annexing Crimea, Moscow expressed a concern for the safety of ethnic Russians there although there was no evidence to suggest they were in any danger.  In the resulting referendum for self-determination in Crimea, it is estimated that less than half the voting age population actually turned out to cast a vote.  Instead, it appears that internal politics and the domestic situation in Russia was a key factor in Putin’s decision to move into Crimea.  When he came to power in 2012, the economic situation was much different than the one during his previous stint as president.  Instead of boasting about economic growth and a rising standard of living, he instead fell back on Russian nationalism.   

Ukraine insists they will get Crimea back but it is difficult to see how they can muster the political, military, diplomatic, and economic muscle to do so.  Perhaps if Ukraine can become prosperous despite its well-cited penchant for corruption, the people of Crimea will have some buyer’s remorse in siding with Putin.  But, if Chechnya is any example, Putin will likely be against that and in any case, Ukraine is many years away from becoming prosperous.

Ukraine is not a role model of economic success and has become a cautionary tale for Russians who might have thought that mass protests would weaken Putin’s power.  He succeeded in using the Ukrainian revolution to his advantage by forcing Russia’s population to watch daily episodes of Ukrainian hell.  The West was an unwitting co-conspirator here since they demanded the dismantling of the cabal of judges they felt were corrupt and, inadvertently, thwarted or stopped many investigations into actual corruption.  Putin framed the invasion and annexation of Crimea as an example of Russian salvation rather than a violation of international law.  

The West was left with very few tools left other than sanctions against Russia and Crimea.  Led largely by a sanctions regime of the United States under Obama, it is hard to discern the effects since Russia is so dependent on energy exports for revenue.  The question is whether the drop of oil prices from over $100 a barrel to $35 a barrel over this time period is the operative factor, or is it sanctions?

From the European standpoint, the sanctions are contingent upon Russia complying with the Minsk II accords.  If they do comply, the sanctions would be lifted.  But Central and Eastern European governments were leery about sanctions from the start and their concerns have only grown.

US-led sanctions have hurt the EU more than they hurt the United States while possibly hurting Russia.  Additionally, Russia often acts ahead in anticipation of sanctions.  When the United States was considering sanctions against Russian oil and manufacturing giants in 2018, Russia passed two laws mandating that state-owned companies could not disclose their suppliers or subcontractors thus leaving many sanction targets in the dark from prying US Treasury Department officials.  

If Moscow hopes to wean their reliance on the energy sector, they have to look elsewhere but sanctions inadvertently thwart those efforts.  The fall in real incomes and stagnation in the standard of living are real challenges for Putin.  This explains why he manipulates and controls the media and portrays all of Russia’s problems not on himself, but on Washington and Brussels.  

Trump is against the proposed Nordstream 2 pipeline and imposed sanctions against companies working on it.  Many of those companies are not Russian, but European.  Russia has engaged in an active campaign to discredit the United States over the pipeline and by the looks and sounds of it, their efforts are succeeding to some degree.  Several European leaders have criticized the United States for targeting European companies that are in no way involved with Crimea or eastern Ukraine.  The one area where sanctions have had a serious effect is on the people and economy of Crimea where the tourism industry which previously accounted for 25% of regional GDP is now largely non-existent.

In modern times, Moscow has ordered three major military incursions- Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 when governments there started showing pro-Western tendencies.  These were large-scale, sometimes brutal military operations with bloodshed.  Crimea was different as tactics and times changed.  It was less an invasion and more an infiltration.  The annexation of Crimea was a victory of political manipulation.  Old school geopolitics cannot fully explain what happened in Georgia in 2008 or in Crimea/the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine in 2014.  A coordinated effort of media manipulation, cyberwarfare, and stealth soldiers are the exact methods Russia uses and Vladimir Putin has embraced them fully.

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