One of the more curious implicit assumptions about the crisis in Ukraine is that the subsequent occupation of the Crimea by Russia represents some kind of triumph for President Vladimir Putin and a defeat for the United States. It is a weird, strategic myopia that comes from an unrealistic belief that the United States should be expected to have a granular level of political control over and responsibility for events on the entire planet. We don’t and never can but this kind of political megalomania leads first to poor analysis and then worse policies.
Far from being entitled to do a victory lap, Putin’s mishandling of Ukraine has dealt Moscow a strategic defeat. With artful bullying and a $15 billion bribe, Putin had pulled off a diplomatic coup by getting President Victor Yanukovych to reverse Ukraine’s nearly finalized deal with the European Union and align itself vaguely with Russia and Putin’s shabby League of Eurasian Dictators. This would have been a tremendous strategic win for Russia to have Ukraine with its rich resources and key geographic location not only well-disposed to Moscow, but as a compliant satellite. Much like Belarus, Ukraine would have been isolated from the West and dependent upon Russia.
Had Putin and Yanukovych left well enough alone the deal might have stuck, but instead they hastily tried to lock in their gains by creating a neo-siloviki regime around the uncharismatic Yanukovych through the passage of “the dictatorship laws”. Unfortunately for Putin, as protests in Kiev exploded into mass demonstrations, Yanukovych proved spectacularly inept even as a puppet dictator, managing to be brutally murderous, hesitant, incompetent and cowardly enough to alienate foreign opinion, the Ukrainian military leadership, and even his own political base. With Yanukovych having fled and now reduced to giving press conferences at Russian shopping malls, Putin decided to grab Crimea as a sort of a face-saving geopolitical consolation prize.
While Ukrainian anger over and resistance to illegal Russian occupation of Crimea is legitimate and understandable, the subsequent outburst of European and American foreign policy wonk hysteria is less so. What Putin has done is grab the lowest hanging fruit available which could be grasped with the least difficulty. Crimea is geographically isolated from Ukraine, ethnically and historically Russian, already politically autonomous and home to a major Russian naval base. Few places in Ukraine could be physically held in defiance of the new government in Kiev by Russia more securely than Crimea. While Putin may elect to hazard his luck by occupying another heavily ethnic Russian enclave of Ukraine like Donetsk Oblast or Zaporizhia, his ability to seal these territories off from the rest of Ukraine are limited. If only a few enterprising Ukranian patriots begin making IEDs, Russians will start coming home in body bags and Putin will face some unpalatable decisions about waging a nasty counterinsurgency campaign.
While Russia’s occupation of Crimea merits condemnation and pressure from the world community, including the EU and the United States, the rush in some quarters to make this crisis into a military standoff between Russia and NATO instead of focusing on measures to quickly stabilize the new pro-Western government in Kiev is ill-advised and strategically unwise. In a bold Foreign Policy piece, Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s former Supreme Commander, offers many level-headed and pragmatic suggestions in terms of planning and aid to Kiev, but also forcefully argues that the NATO alliance should take the diplomatic lead in the pushback to Russia’s provocation, at one point making a decidedly unhelpful comparison with NATO activity in Libya.
If you want to find one idea that fuels Russian paranoia and justifies, in Russian eyes, Putin’s ham-handed aggression it would be the prospect of casual, Libya-style, NATO intervention in Russia’s near-abroad where NATO has no legal business being. Ukraine is not a member of NATO or even the EU and NATO activity there would be an intentional escalation of the crisis that would entail some serious risks, including an armed confrontation with a large nuclear power. Ukraine (minus Crimea) flipping to a pro-Western, pro-EU government was the real strategic prize that Putin’s fumble has already dropped in the lap of the West. If the goal now is getting Russia to accept a grudging return to the status quo ante and the legitimacy of Ukraine’s new government, loose talk of flying American predator drones over the Crimea or standing up a rapid-reaction NATO division to parachute into Kiev is not the way to go.
Notably, it also leaps ahead of the Ukrainians themselves; if they and their military are determined to resist with force any further Russian incursions, then Putin’s easy gains come to a screeching halt and he faces the prospect of a real war, one which is unlikely to remain confined only to Ukrainian territory and could spread to southern Russia, Belarus or the Transcaucasus. The more NATO intrudes in this process with loud public activity, the less room Putin will have to back down and the more likely Ukrainian military officials will vacillate on the decision to defend their own country.
In strategy, in counting your losses you must also recognize one’s gains; NATO is not the Light Brigade and the Crimea is not the place for the alliance to charge.
Mark Safranski is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, LLC. and is a contributor to Pragati: The Indian National Interest. He is the publisher of the national security and strategy group blog, Zenpundit.com.
Photo credit: Jürg Vollmer