Will Russia Invade Crimea?

Since the Charge of the Light Brigade, Crimea has been synonymous with disaster for the West—and Russia now sees it as ground zero in the battle with Ukraine.

Andrew Lubimov/AP,Andrew Lubimov

“I’ll tell you something else, which military historians never realize: they call the Crimea a disaster, which it was, and a hideous botch-up by our staff and supply, which is also true, but what they don’t know is that even with all these things in the balance against you, the difference between hellish catastrophe and brilliant success is sometimes no greater than the width of a sabre blade, but when all is over no one thinks of that. Win gloriously —and the clever dicks forget all about the rickety ambulances that never came, and the rations that were rotten, and the boots that didn’t fit, and the generals who’d have been better employed hawking bedpans round the doors. Lose — and these are the only things they talk about.”

It may not have been George MacDonald Fraser’s fictional antihero Flashman—a Victorian cross between James Bond and Frank Underwood—who tried in vain to stop the Charge of the Light Brigade across the Balaclava plain, but ask any reasonably well-educated Englishman about “the Crimea” and chances are he can do you a shade better than a few lines from Tennyson in descrying stupidity, calamity, and geopolitical misfortune.

This is a place-name that lingers in the historical western memory as a giant “Keep Out” sign, which may account for why Europe and the United States are now so reluctant to meddle in what’s unfolding once again on this troublesome peninsula. If not quite Her Majesty’s cavalry and artillerymen galloping toward certain death against the “embattled ranks of Muscovy,” then another great power contest is assuredly being fought on the Black Sea, whatever our robotic diplomatic corps says to the contrary. Here was John Kerry yesterday offering his own unique cultural touchstone: “This is not ‘Rocky IV.’ It is not a zero-sum game. We do not view it through the lens of East-West or Russia-the U.S. or anything else.” Except that at the end of Rocky IV the American defeated the steroidal Russian to the applause of even the Politburo; and, of course, Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine as a zero-sum game and through the lens of East-West and Russia-the-U.S. and everything else. To Putin, Ukraine is “not even” a state at all, as he told George W. Bush in 2008; it’s a backyard. That’s why Russia’s fee-for-satrapy subsidy to keep a drowning Ukrainian economy afloat was $15 billion, and why America’s is exactly 1/15th that amount.

Indeed, the Kremlin’s reaction to the Euromaidan protest, which became a full-scale Ukrainian revolution last week, might well culminate in the invasion and partitioning of a former Soviet satellite on the pretext of protecting Crimea’s majority ethnic Russian population from the “fascist” putschists whom Moscow believes ousted the legitimate Ukrainian government last week. Deposed president Viktor Yanukovych’s hasty night-flight from Kiev has already yielded a 20,000-page tranche of intriguing documents about his illicit assets, some of them tying him to the infamous Magnitsky case in Russia, and how a “former” Russian GRU (military intelligence) officer helped instruct Berkut riot police on how best to shoot people dead in Kiev. Yanukovych has now been confirmed to be residing in his true motherland. “I perceive him as a compatriot,” said Otari Arshba, the chairman of Russian Duma committee on work with compatriots, in announcing Yanukovych’s safe haven in Russia. “Each Ukrainian citizen, that is a descendant of the USSR, like any other compatriot can count on Russia’s support and loyalty, including matters of personal safety.” In anyone else’s mouth, such words might sound provocatively disrespectful of Ukraine’s sovereignty.

But it’s not just Putinist rhetoric we need worry about. Just this morning, heavily armed pro-Russian fighters stormed the parliament and government headquarters of Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea. Where they got their weapons one can only guess, but notice that a takeover of state institutions here has not been condemned by the Russian Foreign Ministry as the work of violent thugs or “national radicals” or “neo-Nazis,” which of course made up the ranks of anti-Yanukovych protestors.

Crimea is ground-zero for another Ukrainian nightmare. It's been ground zero for quite a few. After the Lights met the Cossacks, there were two Soviet famines, including Stalin’s Holodomor. There was the genuine Nazi invasion; the forced expulsion (again by Stalin) in 1944 of the entire Turkic Tartar population to Central Asia, a campaign of ethnic cleansing that killed about half its victims from disease and malnutrition. (A large number of Tartars only returned to Crimea in the 1980s.) Then, in 1954, Khrushchev decided to transfer Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, even though Russia’s Black Sea Fleet continued to be stationed there, creating the preconditions for Crimea’s absorption into an independent Ukraine in 1991.

Demography may not be destiny, but in this case it’s trying like hell to be. According to Andrei Malgin, a writer for Ehko Moskvy, as of 2001, 58.3 percent of Crimea’s population was Russian. But Russians outnumber other ethnicities, such as the Tartars, in only a few raions or municipalities: Feodosiya, Simferopol and Yalta among them. Elsewhere throughout Crimea—Krasnoperekopsk, Dzhankoy, Pervomaysk—Russians are in a minority. If armed clashes were to break out in a region-wide scale, the “victor” would by no means be predetermined. What the media has rather glibly been defining for months as a geographical or ethnolinguistic East-West split for Ukraine as a whole might actually be better applied to Crimea. But here it runs along a North-South divide, with pro-Russian concentrations more heavily distributed closer to the Black Sea.

Yesterday, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations broke in Simferopol, leading to at least one death, probably from heart attack. “Glory to Ukraine” (shouted by Tartars) competed with “Russia!” (shouted by Russians). Refat Chubarov, the Crimean Tartar leader, has even called on his people to form self-defense militias to guard against attack or provocations, as Ukrainska Pravda reported. Tartars have even asked Ankara for military intervention to protect them against the Russians: whispers, however deafly received, of another Balaclava campaign. Meanwhile, news emerged that the Russian military would now be conducting a large-scale “snap” exercise featuring 150,000 soldiers (as Naval War College Professor John Schindler points out, this is roughly the number that the United States dispatched into Iraq in 2003) for what Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called “action in crisis situations that threaten the nation’s military security.” This drill, running from February 28 until March 3, would encompass the entirety of Russia’s Western Military District, which spans from the Arctic to the borders of Ukraine and Belarus, as well as the Second Army of the Central Military District, the command of the Aerospace Defense, the Airborne Troops, and the Long-Range and Military Transport Aviations. The district that would theoretically invade Crimea isn’t involved in the exercise: both saber rattling and plausible deniability done right.

Shoigu initially made no mention of Ukraine at all in respect of this surprise exercise, and later denied that it had anything to do with events unfolding next door. “The Supreme Commander [Putin] has ordered a test of the ability of our troops to respond in crisis situations that threaten the military security of the country including terrorist, biological and man-made threats,” he said, without bothering to elaborate that when the Russian government refers to “terrorists” in relation to these sorts of military exercises, it means Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Georgia, not al-Qaeda. See Russia's (and Belarus’) enormous Zapad-13 exercise last spring, which even lumped Sweden into the jihadist mix. Or see how, on February 24, Estonia’s Independence Day, U.S. F-15 fighter jets were late in arriving to a commemorative “fly-by” over Tallinn because they were too busy chasing away Russian spy planes from Estonian airspace. And while it's true that Valentina Matvienko, the speaker of the upper house of Russian parliament, has denied Moscow's present intention to invade Crimea, should conditions in the peninsula deteriorate, and should enough Crimean Russians seek to break away from Ukraine, leading to a bloody standoff that rivals or exceeds Euromaidan, then the Kremlin would have a ready-made excuse to change its mind. As ever, it has announced this long-game in advance.

A senior Russian government official told the Financial Times on February 20: “If Ukraine breaks apart, it will trigger a war. They will lose Crimea first [because] we will go in and protect [it], just as we did in Georgia.” (As as a matter of fact, a day after the Sochi Games ended, the Russian military restarted construction on a 30-mile barbed wire fence dividing South Ossetia from the Georgian mainland, information that was anxiously relayed by Tbilisi’s new pro-NATO, pro-Europe prime minister to Foreign Policy magazine.) Perhaps not coincidentally, also on February 20, Matvienko’s counterpart in the Crimean parliament, Vladimir Konstantinov, anticipated separatism as the likeliest course for the peninsula: “It may happen if the country splits. Anyway, the entire situation is heading towards it.” Today, Konstantinov announced a May 25 referendum for more Crimean “autonomy.”

More worrisome still is that some form of Russian military penetration may have already occurred in Crimea. The Globe and Mail reported yesterday that it “saw least a dozen men wearing fatigues—supported by an armoured personnel carrier—standing under a Russian flag at a checkpoint erected roughly halfway along the 80-kilometre road from Sevastopol to Simferopol, putting it close to the administrative border that separates the Sevastopol municipality from the rest of Crimea and Ukraine.” These so-called “volunteers” were clad in balaclavas and inspected each oncoming vehicle with flashlights. Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty posted this video showing the erection of concrete barriers close to the entrance to Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Fleet is based. Concrete barriers seem a formal improvement on the hodgepodge, Les Miserables barricades of tires, wood crates and building blocks that were thrown up in the Kievan Maidan over the last few weeks. Also, unsubstantiated rumors about Russian passports being handed out to Crimeans continue to swirl on social media, bolstered by a Duma draft law introduced by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia that would expedite Russian citizenship for Russians anywhere in the Commonwealth of Independent States: yet another hint of South Ossetia and Abkhazia redux, made more suggestive by the fact that LDPR is a genuinely fascistic pseudo-opposition party invented by the Russian intelligence services. (It further bears keeping in mind that draft laws in the Duma aren't like draft bills in Congress; they don’t happen unless they’re instructed to happen from on high. Interfax has since confirmed that the legislation is being "worked through" with the help of the presidential administration—in other words, it's being written in Putin's office.) Meanwhile, Russian troop movements within Crimea itself—armored personnel carriers have been spotted driving from Feodosiya to Simferopol but may have already turned back—are being downplayed by state propagandists, notably RT, as nothing out of the ordinary. It’s the “warmongering media” doing the provoking, don’t you know.

So what’s Putin’s long game? We’ve had more than a slight indication already, thanks to Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, who told the New York Times four days ago that Yanukovych only agreed to sign a compromise agreement with Ukrainian opposition leaders after taking a phone call from his master in Moscow: “He came back, he was agreeing to limit his time in office. That made everything possible.” Ulrich Speck, a research fellow at Carnegie Europe, wrote on his Facebook page that Putin decided to abandon Yanukovych after seeing how little support the latter drew from his own military and police, and after fielding warnings from Barack Obama and Angela Merkel that a civil war would be solely Russia’s fault and responsibility. But does that mean that Putin now wants to help Washington and Brussels guide Ukraine toward stability and security? Don’t be silly. “Putin decided to move to plan B,” Speck wrote, “which is: spoil new government by inciting unrest East and South, use economic leverage, count on Western unwillingness to pull Ukraine, and finally get control again through a new leader ready to act as Moscow’s mission chief in Kiev.”

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This view has been backed up by what Russian political analyst Konstanin Simonov told Pravda earlier in the week: that incompetent ingrate Yanukovych was never really pro-Russian at all, that newly released “Orange Princess” Yulia Tymoshenko is destined to inherit the country, and that the Kremlin should now let Ukraine’s economy implode because “Europe will not save Ukraine, especially considering that Europe doesn’t have any coherent model of economic development of Ukraine. Nobody in Europe needs the archaic Ukrainian economy, and nobody is going to try to pull it out of the crisis at their own expense.” Then it’ll be guess-who to the rescue.

Along with United States and Great Britain, Russia is signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which commits all three from “refrain[ing[ from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine” and to “refrain[ing] from economic coercion designed to subordinate to their own interest the exercise by Ukraine of the rights inherent in its sovereignty and thus to secure advantages of any kind.”

I think it’s fair to say that Russia has already violated both those commitments. The only question now is how far Putin’s chaos theory for winning back Ukraine will apply. But then, as old Flashy says, if Vladimir Vladimirovich wins gloriously, first in Crimea, no one will really care about all the ignominious details that allowed him to do so.