Saturday, March 1, 2014

Seven Precipices: The Ukrainian Crisis [UPDATED]

Map of Crimea (1854) from A School History of England
Courtesy of Maps, Etc. 

The history of Ukraine is complicated to say the very least.  It is a principally Slavic nation which has been dominated in part or in whole for most of its history by outside powers - Russia (sometimes in the guise of the Soviet Union), Prussia, Austro-Hungary, Turkic tribes, the Mongol, and Poland-Lithuania.  It is religiously somewhat diverse, but it is Ukraine's ethno-linguistic divisions which are driving the competition for control of the state and two fundamentally different visions of that nation's political-economic future.

Rural Ukrainians and urban western Ukrainians (those who principally speak the Ukrainian language) want a liberal political-economy allied and linked to the West.  Urban eastern and Crimean Ukrainians want a Russo-centric polity, one that follows the bureaucratic-authoritarian principles of Putin's everything-old-is-new-again state. Finally, there are other regional minorities - notably Crimean Tatars (returned from Stalin's deportation), Bulgars, Romanians, and Hungarians - who are generally in accord with Ukrainian-speakers.   

Put simply - this looks messy from the get-go. 

Make it messier from the fact that Russia's meddling has made this a face-contest - if Putin let's Ukraine out of its sphere of influence then Russia looks like it can't keep its house in order and its domination of other parts of Eurasia, perhaps even within its own border, becomes far more problematic. 

Make it messier still by adding some realpolitik.  Take a second and look at a map of the world.  Russia is big with lots of coastlines, but not all coastlines are made equal.  Little of that vast coast is pointing in the right direction to efficiently reach markets or strategic locations either in-region or inter-regionally and much of it requires passing through minority-dominated areas, areas that, were they to rebel, could be cut off from Moscow. Not only that, but most of those ports are ice-locked for large periods of time during the winter months.  Russia therefore sees domination of Ukraine, and its portages, as essential to its interests - economic at the least, since the strategic value of the Black Sea ports is radically lower given NATO's post-Cold War domination of the Straits of Dardanelles and Bosporus (though I dare say that Russian policymakers emphasize the military at least as much).

That's what you already know if you read my earlier brief brief (one being an adjective, the other a noun).  Fair enough.  Now onto the new material.

Before the Olympic War

Viktor Yanukovych was president of the Ukraine.  If you are in favor of the ousting you probably consider this a restoration of liberalism and Orange Revolution ideals.  If you are against the ousting you consider this an illegal and unjustifiable act of violence. 

Fact of the matter, it was a coup - justifiable or not being a matter of ideology, ethnicity, or both.  

Let me reveal my bias - Yanukovych was an autocrat, crushing dissent and freedom of speech, movement, assembly, and privacy.  There is a lot of discussion with regards to the quality of the election that brought him into office but it certainly is a matter of some contention due to concerns of Russian efforts at electoral corruption.

Regardless of the validity of the election (which I think is interesting but not immediately the crux of the matter) the official geodemography of it reveals a great deal - check out these maps of the internal political divisions in the nation and a helluva' lot becomes immediately clear - kudos to The Washington Post's "WorldViews" contributor Max Fisher.

Fair enough.  Fast forward to 2013, late November.  Yanukovych announces by fiat that he is withdrawing Ukraine from trade discussions with the European Union in favor of closer political-economic ties with the Russian Federation.  Among ethnic Ukrainians and other non-Russian ethnic groups there is widespread and general outrage at the decision.  Within a week and a half not only are there nationwide protests but furthermore there are clear efforts to suppress the protests using police violence.  In mid-January Ukraine reinforces efforts to undermine the protests by passing several extremely repressive anti-protest laws - I have been looking for an English translation of these but so far haven't found one, but the manner in which they were passed was, frankly, offensively anti-democratic (and a helluva' justification of bicameral legislatures) - in essence, in the middle of discussions of unrelated materials the vote was initiated without discussion, completely surprising the opposition and clearly coordinated secretly by the leadership of the ruling party.  To summarize, however (with the rejoinder that, again, I haven't read these myself and would be immensely grateful to anyone who could get me a translation to read and, if possible, publish) the laws created huge civil and criminal punishments for protesting or critiquing the regime in person, print, or online.  

The effect was, rather predictably, to encourage rather than discourage opponents of the regime and the scale and violence of protests increased until late February when it seemed that civil war was nearly inevitable.  

Finally, as the threat loomed so large even Yanukovych couldn't deny it, the president resigned his office, fled the capital for parts unknown, and the parliament cancelled the majority of the anti-protest laws.   

This was, however, to be no Second Orange Revolution, however, which is not an entirely negative thing - after all, a repeat of that regime change would more than likely result in similar long-term outcomes.  Yet this was not to be a Velvet Revolution either, leading to a peaceable parting of ways between ethnic Russian and non-Russian Ukrainians.  Heck, it wasn't even to be an inelegant modern-day Sudentenland Incident.  Why?  Because Russian interest in Ukraine isn't limited to the ethno-national angle - heck, it probably isn't principally interested in the ethno-national angle.  No, friends, this is about the Black Sea and the Black Sea fleet.  

The Olympic War: Everything Old is New Again

First, let's address the term I'm using (that I damn well made up).  The Olympic War.  Have a lot of people died - no, not yet.  But did a great power invade a weaker neighbor with the intent of intervening in the government and guaranteeing geopolitical and geostrategic dominance over it?  You're damn right.  And that, my friends, is a war. 

So, let me liberally quote the good folks at al-Jazeera who are maintaining a very nice timeline of the events. Consider: 

Feb 22: Ukraine politicians vote to remove Yanikovich. Tymoshenko is freed from prison and speaks to those gathered in Kiev. May 25 is set for fresh presidential elections.

Feb 23: Ukraine's parliament assigns presidential powers to its new
speaker, Oleksandr Turchinov, an ally of Tymoshenko. Pro-Russian protesters rally in Crimea against the new Kiev administration.

Feb 24: Ukraine's interim government draws up a warrant for Yanukovich's arrest.

Feb 25: Pro-Russian Aleksey Chaly is appointed Sevastopol’s de facto mayor as rallies in Crimea continue.

Feb 26: Crimean Tartars supporting the new Kiev administration clash with pro-Russia protesters in the region. Potential members of the new Ukrainian government appear before crowds in Independence Square. Turchinov announces disbanding of Berkut - the feared riot police. Russian troops near border with Ukraine are put on alert and drilled for "combat readiness".

Feb 27: Pro-Kremlin armed men seize government buildings in Crimea. Ukraine government vows to prevent a country break-up as Crimean parliament set May 25 as the date for referendum on region’s status. Yanukovich is granted refuge in Russia.

Feb 28: Armed men in unmarked combat fatigues seize Simferopol International Airport and a military airfield in Sevestopol. The Ukrainian government accuses Russia of aggression. United Nations Security Council holds an emergency closed-door session to discuss the situation in Crimea. The United States warns Russia of militarily intervening in Ukraine.

Moscow says military movements in Crimea are in line with previous agreements to protect its fleet position in the Black Sea. Yanukovich makes his first public appearance, in southern Russia.

Mar 1: As situation worsens in Crimea, local leaders ask for Russian President Vladimir Putin's help. Russian upper house of the parliament approves a request by Putin to use military power in Ukraine.

Damn elegant.  Let me make it more complicated.  The Winter Olympics are taking place in Sochi, Russia.  The Ukraine attempts to deal with their crisis smoothly.  The Russians wait until the international press has shrunk to pre-Olympic levels.  They call up their forces, design a strategic incursion plan (or more likely a series of said plans), make sure Yanukovych is safe and sound in their own borders (cough - puppet - cough) and begin taking steps to secure their bases in the Black Sea, steadily expanding their capabilities from the bases themselves into the territories abutting those bases.  After Putin gets permission to intervene (unanimous permission - probably a combination of rally-around-the-flag, patrimonialism, corruption, and good-old-fashioned threats) he begins upping the ante, actively moving forces on a significant scale into strategically important areas of the Ukraine, most importantly the Crimean Peninsula and its its principle port, Sevastapol (or Agyar in Crimean Tatar), though there is reason to expect at least the ethnic Russian dominated cities of eastern Ukraine stand to be occupied as well - a broader incursion is possible but the costs entailed are radically higher, of course.  

So, where do Russian forces stand now?  I'll be honest, I'm having a difficult time confirming specifics - some things seem to be emerging from the fog however.  First, there are clearly troops in several strategic points in Crimea who are working for the Russians - the reports are just too overwhelming to doubt that.  The "identity" of these troops is dependent however on the report you're reading - mercenaries (think Russia's very own Blackwater), Russian military forces, or some combination of those being no matter.  There are some indications that Russia is at least in communication with ethnic-Russian militias in different parts of the Ukraine, almost definitely gleaning intelligence and possibly establishing weapons caches, training insurgents, and establishing plans for strategic and tactical sabotage and Ukraine military resource diversion.  There has been a significant increase of military preparedness on the Russo-Ukrainian borders (I suspect there are probably similar preparations in Transnistria as well - call it a gut instinct).  

So why aren't we calling it a war?   Easy.  They're big.  They're beautiful.  They are the most dangerous things our species has ever created.   And Russia has a helluva' a lot of them.  

If you said nuclear weapons, well, you probably remember the Cold War.  Everything old, my friends, is new again.  

The International Reaction

Is exactly what we'd expect at this early stage - Europe is up in arms, but only allegorically.  The United States is fuming and spitting but not substantially changing its military disposition.  Russia is insistent of its good intents.  The United Nations is generally condemning but the only organ that really matters, the Security Council, is functionally unmoved despite closed negotiations and talks (which I would love to have been a fly on the wall for) - unsurprising since Russia has a veto on the UNSC.   

More specifically, I have rounded up some official, up to the minute, press statements from the big players.  Consider:


[Most other statements on Ukraine from recent days seem to have disappeared - indicating China is considering a policy shift]

European Union




MOFA on monument dismantling - February 25 2014  [there are many examples of this sort of release]

United Kingdom

United Nations

United States

The Emergent Outcome Possibilities and Probabilities

Well, now to the crux.  What comes next? 

Almost Definite - Ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars will engage in open conflict with Russian troops and ethnic Russian Ukrainian militias. 

Almost Definite - Ukraine will, for the foreseeable future lose control over the Crimean Peninsula.

Almost Definite - The United States and its allies (de facto and de jure) will covertly and diplomatically oppose Russian actions on a large scale but this opposition will fall far short of overt military action or economic sanctions on a large scale, in part because the US is incapable of replacing Russian supplies of natural gas to European consumers, in part because the West and its liberal allies will be unable to mobilize intergovernmental organizations to actively punish Russia (in part because of Russia's powerful role in these institutions), and most importantly because of Russia's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. 

Almost Definite - The People's Republic of China will be extremely uncomfortable with this Russian military activism in the borders of another nation and will further lean towards the West - this potentially (consider this Likely, not Almost Definite) could be mirrored in the behavior of other states that have complex relations with the West and share strategic space with Russia, including India, Iran, and Pakistan.

Almost Definite - Whatever element of the Ukraine survives as an independent sovereign polity will seek to rearm with weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent to Russian depredation.  NATO will radically increase its deployment of anti-ballistic missile technology in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, possibly openly extending the ABM shield to the Ukraine and Georgia and possibly other former Soviet polities.  

Almost Definite - A broad international consensus will emerge between the West and much of the Islamic world officially, improving intercivilizational relations.

Possible - Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea could become yet another of the growing class of polities which are recognized only by a single patron polity and its puppets (most of which today are clients of the Russian Federation), declaring themselves independent but exercising sovereignty only insofar as Russia allows this in practice.  Western Ukraine would almost definitely align with the West, signing bilateral defense treaties in the near-term and fast-tracking as much as possible denser association with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Insurgency or even civil war is almost inevitable should this come to pass and massive refugee movements should be expected.  This likely would further spur other disestablishmentarian movements in Russia proper, including among un-repatriated Tatar (descendants of Tatar expelled from the peninsula by Stalin who have not returned).  This group of Tatars, principally Muslim in terms of religious identity, are likely to be targeted by transnational radical religious fundamentalists as a source of recruiting and potential allies.  

Unlikely - The broad emergent international consensus will result in tangible Western and/or Islamic political and economic responses of strategic importance - serious economic sanctions.

Very Unlikely - The broad emergent international consensus will result in tangible Western and/or Islamic political and economic responses of strategic importance - a closing of the Bosporus and Dardanelles to Russian military and/or economic naval vessels.

Very, Very Unlikely - A United Nations peacekeeping operation of the Cypriot-type (divide and keep 'm from fighting) stabilizes de facto Russian Ukraine's border from ROU (Rest of Ukraine). 

Almost Impossible (But Not So Impossible That it Doesn't Warrant Note) - Russo-American military standoff a la the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Terrifying, but a near-worst-case scenario.   


This is far from over, and information is very limited - I'll continue to update as the crisis unfolds, however. 

God save the Ukraine and the Ukrainians. 


March 2 2014

There have been three major developments, concurrently transpiring in the short hours since I wrote this entry - notably (1) Russian military forces control virtually all of Crimea, thankfully with little or no loss of life, and are digging in on the peninsular border; (2) Ukraine has activated its entire military strength, reservists and militia included; and (3) the Western powers are apparently very close to imposing "targeted economic sanctions" against Russia.  More as I learn it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

I appreciate your comments, questions, insights, debates, and so forth, but please, no trolling, flaming, hate, or general incivility.