Simon Leitch, PhD*
Brisbane, March 28th, 2014 (Alochonaa) –The past few months have seen a slow-burn crisis of political legitimacy in Ukraine explode into protests, a coup, military occupation, territorial annexation, sanctions, war threats and talk of a new Cold War. From Estonia to Transnistria rumors now abound that more Russian takeovers are imminent and, given that the Western response to the crisis has been negligible, these fears are justifiable. But how likely is a new Russian annexation, and what could be done about it?
First, it would be best to reiterate a point which I have made elsewhere – Russia was confident its actions in seizing Crimea would not cause a war, and it executed its ‘Crimean maneuver’ at the time it did because events were fluid and Ukraine and Europe were taken by surprise. Whilst Russia ran the risk of sanctions it correctly judged that these would be minor because Europeans don’t care enough about Ukraine to pay more on their electricity bills, lose lucrative investments in Russia, or stop receiving Russian money through European finance hubs. For a taste of Europe’s attitude to the “crisis” you only have to look at the actions of France – they are still going to sell Russia 1.37 billion Euros worth of warships alone over the next few years and have an equally large market in military technology sales. These are not the actions of a particularly concerned European power and we could pull out similar examples of parochial interests across every major European state. We might also say that the USA will be just as half-hearted about sanctions and won’t bear the costs alone, whilst it should be obvious that no one is interested in a general war with Russia.
This European-American tolerance of Russian moves could be interpreted as a green light to for more Russia annexations but there are limits to European tolerance. Russia recognizes this, which is why it went so far to deny it was even occupying Crimea and then put so much stock into the referendum. Putin’s Russia was treading as lightly as is possible for the metaphorical Russian bear. Simply put, Russia’s concern is this; if sanctions are expanded their impact might not worry Putin’s regime immediately but it will cause trouble for Russia over the next few years. If Europe and the USA feel suitably adversarial towards Russia they could gradually diversify oil and gas supplies, slowly divests from Russian industries, tighten technology transfers and raise the costs for Russians to do business overseas. Whilst the sanctions are currently too weak to be effective, Russian policymakers appear to understand that they cannot openly challenge the West to a trade and sanctions war for an indefinite period. This issue of long-term effects of sanctions forms the backdrop to Russia’s thinking about its next moves in the region.
If Russia seizes more territory soon it must be in Eastern Ukraine, but unlike in Crimea it will not be easy for Russian forces to cross the border and gain de facto control whilst denying its forces are on the ground. If they were to take Eastern Ukraine it might involve some shooting, which is something Russia would wish to avoid. They gained Crimea because it was easy, because there wouldn’t be shooting, and because it contains Russia’s most important Black Sea base. Eastern Ukraine doesn’t stack up to such lofty criteria. Although some government reports in the USA and elsewhere indicate that Russian troops could snatch territory in Estonia or Transnistria this would be qualitatively different and Russia would be running a much higher risk of serious sanctions whilst it is hard to see what it would gain.
Indeed, it is worth noting that the Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s eastern border may not even be related to taking more Ukrainian territory. Instead, those troops may have simply been positioned there to deter Ukraine from thinking it can push Russian forces back out of Crimea. I have no doubt that if Ukrainian forces did attempt to eject Russian troops from Crimea they would not only lose that battle but Russian forces would also invade Eastern Ukraine and keep that too. From Russia’s perspective a Ukrainian attack would be the ideal outcome, allowing Russia to “play the role of the injured,” as that proto-nationalist statesmen, Otto von Bismarck, would say, and it would just facilitate more annexations. In short, the ominous troop build-up could be just a Russia insurance policy and not a new venture.
All this said, Russia could take more territory in the future if they wish to discount the costs of sanctions and believe that NATO would do nothing more than protest. If this is what happens it will be the end of NATO’s eastern expansion and possibly result in a contraction. Conversely, if Russia pushes into more territory and NATO begins even a limited military response that forces Russia to relinquish at least some of its gains it will almost certainly result in the expansion of NATO. If NATO is proven to be less than serious about its newer Baltic members’ security it will not gain new followers, whilst if even a limited war breaks out there can be no doubt that a new equilibrium will emerge. Wars, even small ones, almost inevitably change the perceived interests of those who fight them, leading to new demands, opening up opportunities that were previously closed and encouraging policymakers to seek something tangible that can show the public it was worth it.
In short, there are still risks but the very fact that the use of force will open up an unknown sequence of events will probably mean that Russia should now be happy with its gains and merely preserve the new status quo; Russia has done well. Western publics have a short memory, their political leaders rotate and the business community will seek the removal of sanctions as soon as possible, so Putin’s regime can probably just outlast this latest dispute until the next set of optimistic Western administrations push the “reset” button on Russian relations (again…).
Longer term it will be interesting to see whether the Ukraine issue makes NATO and the West more or less pro-Ukrainian. Clearly, NATO states’ don’t feel too strongly about Ukraine, but being humiliated by Russia might reinvigorate NATO’s interest. There is also one consequence of Russia’s seizure of Crimea which no one is talking about. Now that there will be no more Crimean Russian voters influencing elections in Ukraine there might be a more permanently anti-Russian flavor to the Ukrainian legislature. Likewise, if Russia takes over eastern Ukraine the resulting rump state of Ukraine will have a decidedly different electoral character than it does today. Right now, Russian interests and power are expressed through pro-Russians within Ukraine and they act as a democratic handbrake on anti-Russian policy. Paradoxically, should Russia seize more territory in Ukraine it might be risking a big part of its regional influence. If I were in Putin’s shoes right now I would be happy with things the way they are. Crimea in the pocket, NATO humiliated and Ukraine politically divided – it’s a good week’s work for the Kremlin.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs,Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers. To read his previous commentaries on Russia-Ukraine crisis, see Why Nato Should Forget About Crimea and Russian Action in Ukraine are Nothing if Not Predictable