How could Russia do it?

| January 5, 2015 | 0 Comments
Russia turned a majority of Ukrainians who don’t live in Crimea or in the separatist regions of Lugansk and Donetsk (pictured here) from friends to enemies, according to our writer, who cites poll results.

Russia turned a majority of Ukrainians who don’t live in Crimea or in the separatist regions of Lugansk and Donetsk (pictured here) from friends to enemies, according to our writer, who cites poll results.

Why did Russia make its move on Ukraine in March 2014? It’s clear now that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants and needs to tie Ukraine to Russia’s political, military, and economic chariot. If one disregards the “Russki Mir” propaganda — Mr. Putin’s self-created soft-power foundation, designed to promote the Russian language and Russia as a global power — or speculations about Mr. Putin’s imperial aspirations, Russia’s true motivations become clear.
The rational reasons Russia clings to Ukraine are its interdependence in the military and aerospace industries, Ukraine’s position as a market for Russian goods, primarily natural gas, and Ukraine’s role as a buffer between Russia and NATO. It has a population of 144 million (not including Crimea) and a GDP of $2.63-trillion. Russia has a land border running 20,241 kilometres — 1,974 kilometres of which border Ukraine. It cannot, demographically or economically, afford adequate defence of its borders on land, and especially on sea if it comes into direct contact with NATO, China and countries such as Afghanistan or Iran.

Ukraine’s two separatist regions, Lugansk and Donetsk, are pictured above.

Ukraine’s two separatist regions, Lugansk and Donetsk, are pictured above.

Currently, Russia’s long southern border in Asia is separated from potential threats by an array of Central Asian satellite countries, and Mongolia. However, Russia is losing its grip on Central Asia to China’s influence: Turkmenistan has practically been lost already. Relations with Uzbekistan are complicated, and, even in the case of Kazakhstan, all is not rosy. The south of Central Asia also experiences infiltration of fundamentalist movements from Afghanistan. Given this situation, Russia needs a buffer space, particularly in the west, to balance its resources and feel secure. Its alliance with Belarus partially serves this goal. While Ukraine was friendly and non-aligned, it also worked effectively as a buffer state between Russia and NATO. The annexation of Crimea and subsequent conflict in Eastern Ukraine are scenarios very few could have imagined. Neither seemed to be of much use to Russia, and yet, it happened nonetheless.

Russian President Vladimir Putin saw the uprising against former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych as a special operation of the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin saw the uprising against former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych as a special operation of the West.

What are the results for Russia?
The consequences of the conflict for Russia have already been serious. As more time passes, Russia will only come to feel the pain more acutely, regardless of the sanctions. Russia has, for example, become toxic to foreign investors, as does any unpredictable player. It will be exceedingly difficult for Russia to develop the mineral resources in its vast Asian territories without attracting investors.
In addition, there are quite a few immediate consequences of Russia’s decision to engage Ukraine in this act of war. Ukrainian support for closer integration with Russia and Belarus fell from 58 percent in 2011 to 21 percent in 2014, while disapproval of such an alliance grew from 22 percent to 56 percent during the same period. At the of end of July, Ukrainian support for integration into NATO reached 59 percent, as compared to 45 percent in June and 10 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, 37 percent of Ukrainians consider NATO membership to be the only viable protection against Russian aggression. According to August polling, 39.5 percent of Ukrainians named Poland among friendly countries for Ukraine, 36 percent named the U.S., 26 percent named Georgia, 19 percent said Lithuania; 18.6 percent, Germany; 18.5 percent, Canada; 16 percent, the U.K. and 13.8 percent, Latvia. Russia scored only 0.6 percent, indicating that it is uniformly not considered a friendly country by Ukrainians.
The recent Ukrainian Parliamentary elections also demonstrated fundamental change in the attitude of Ukrainians. The only openly pro-Russian Opposition Block (which is the remains of the formerly powerful Party of Regions) landed just 10 percent support on the proportional vote list. The other five political parties who won the election have all taken pro-Western positions. The election fight demonstrated that even alleged suspicion of co-operation with Russia or with Mr. Putin can severely undermine the chances of a particular candidate. The Parliament that was elected will still carry some characteristics of the past because half of it was elected on the basis of electoral districts, but the overall attitude of the voters became very clear: “Go West”.
As a result of the conflict, Russia turned a majority of Ukrainians who don’t live in Crimea or in the separatist regions of Lugansk and Donetsk from friends into enemies. The elections, held in these enclaves in November 2014, produced the formal pro-Russian result, but these  elections were not democratic, and do not reflect the general attitude of the population. The economic problems of these regions have only started to materialise, while locals are terrorised by semi-criminal field commanders who are out of control. This means Russia turned a big part of its long, once-friendly and unprotected border with Ukraine into a border marked by unstable criminalised enclaves.
Furthermore, in early October, units of the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division were deployed in the Baltic states, a couple hundred kilometres from St. Petersburg. Never before have NATO attack capabilities been displayed so close to Russia’s vital centres. Finland is now considering joining NATO, and even in Belarus, 25 percent of the people are ready for armed resistance if they are invaded by Russia, while the plan for a new Russian base in Belarus is approved of by only 15 percent of Belarusians, with 45 percent disapproving. The security buffer separating Russia from NATO has been eroded, and, after the conflict ends, Russia will have to deal with an entirely unprecedented situation at its western borders. Significantly, even two of Russia’s closest allies, Belarus and Kazakhstan, have condemned Russian involvement in the conflict in Ukraine. This is a worrying sign for Russia, which now has to mind the stability of the Eurasia Union.

Urals crude falls below safe price level
All of these developments have happened against the backdrop of the explosive situation in the Russian economy, according to Alexey Ulyukayev, Russia’s minister of the economy. Inflation was at 8 percent in October, and the projected growth of the GNP for 2014 is a meagre 1 percent. In October, Russian Urals crude traded $10-$14 below the “safe” $95/barrel margin for Russia and has been falling since July. Russia is also about to lose its second-largest gas market — Ukraine. Meanwhile, none of Russia’s recent acquisitions can sustain themselves economically. The logistics of getting from Russia to Crimea across the Kerch Strait are a nightmare, and as soon as the strait freezes, the peninsula will face a serious shortage of basic supplies. Ukraine has already warned that power to Crimea will be cut off as the weather gets colder: Ukraine’s own power generation is impacted by the conflict, and it now needs all it has for domestic use. Ukraine essentially has no alternative to cutting off the power supply to Crimea during the cold months.
Parts of Donetsk and the Lugansk regions, which are under Russian control, include deeply depressed mining areas. Together with Crimea, they will soon become a heavy burden on the already-deficient Russian budget. During the summer, Russian armed forces were stretched to their limit. Hundreds in the Russian military were killed, and thousands wounded, not to mention the loss of untold numbers of Russian volunteers and mercenaries. Moreover, unexpectedly for the Kremlin, the extreme left and extreme right nationalist forces in Russia rallied behind the banner of Novorossia, which the Kremlin invented specifically as justification for plans to split Ukraine. Russian nationalists see Novorossia as a dreamland — another Russia, without Mr. Putin, corruption and oligarchs. Unfortunately, Novorossia advocates see their dreamland without Ukrainians or Jews; which evokes unfortunate memories from the past century. On the Russian side, Mr. Putin now faces a nationalist opposition from within that’s heavily armed, combat-ready, experienced and well-organised. He can only expect more such opponents to eventually come back from Ukraine. In short, after seven months of confrontation with Ukraine, Russia is facing mounting economic, political and military difficulties, with no clear end in sight. All of these problems could have been predicted, but Russia nevertheless embarked on a war with Ukraine immediately after the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity.

Why Russia gambled with war
Russia had two possible strategies for addressing the challenges posed by the Ukrainian events. First, it could have reached out and assisted the new Ukraine in getting on its feet, solidifying the affinity between the Russian and Ukrainian nations. At the time, Ukrainian leadership was weak and regardless of how pro-Western it was, it would have followed the mood of the people. This seems to be a simple and obvious course of action, especially considering that the overthrown regime of Viktor Yanukovych was ruthless, corrupt, violent and almost universally hated. Such a move would have allowed Russia to win the hearts of Ukrainians. Second was the path Russia did pick: to use this moment of weakness on the part of Ukraine to split the country and grab whatever Russia needed, by force. Unfortunately, the history of Russia’s actual perception of Ukraine made this choice inevitable.
In April 2008, during his exchange with George W. Bush at the Bucharest NATO-Russia Summit, Mr. Putin spelled out his view of Ukraine and it has been consistent ever since. According to the Russian president, Ukraine is not a real state, and merely consists of territories that  belong to Eastern Europe or are a gift from Russia. The historic justification for this view is questionable at best. The fact that the majority of Ukrainians in the East and South speak Russian was the primary argument on which Russian analysts relied. Despite the fact that speaking English does not make the Irish, Americans, Canadians or Nigerians British, by virtue of some distorted logic, Russians believed that speaking Russian makes Ukrainians Russian. Later, Russian propaganda even came up with a theory that the Ukrainian language was invented by the Austro-Hungarian Army’s General Staff to sabotage the Russian Empire. Any person who is faintly aware of the history of the Russian Empire can easily see just how ridiculous such claims are. Nevertheless, Russian propagandists were intent on convincing the populations of Russia and Ukraine that Ukrainian statehood and the Ukrainian nation are artificial constructs, created by the West to isolate part of the Russian nation and undermine its power.

Ukrainians’ growing patriotic nationalism
The source of these ideas can be narrowed down to the Izborsky Club, a group of Russian intellectuals that includes Putin advisers Sergei Glaziev and Alexander Dugin, writer Alexander Prokhanov, economists Mikhail Delyagin and Mikhail Khazin, Physics Nobel Prize laureate Zhores Alferov, retired general Leonid Ivashov, political scientist Natalia Narochnitskaya and Mr. Putin’s “spiritual adviser,” Russian Orthodox Church Bishop Father Tikhon Shevkunov, among others. The concepts developed inside the Izborsky Club are ridiculous, but
extensive, and carefully crafted propaganda transformed these concepts into the beliefs of the majority of Russians. The impact of Russian propaganda in Ukraine was just the opposite: Ukrainian citizens have been gradually growing more patriotic and more self-aware as Ukrainians.
The propaganda campaign was just a reflection of the acceptance of these principles at a decision-making level. By 2014, these concepts had been accepted as truth by the people and the country leadership. Additional factors contributing to Mr. Putin’s decision had to be intelligence information concerning the weakness of the Ukrainian armed forces, which only had about 6,000 combat-ready men with functioning weapons at the end of 2013, as well as reports of the vast majority of Ukrainians’ distaste for the corrupt and arrogant central government of Viktor Yanukovych. Finally, Russian leadership genuinely considered the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity as a special operation of the Western secret services. This is a natural way of thinking for the ex-KGB crowd, now known as the government of the Russian Federation. It also aligns with the core concepts of the Russian perception of Ukraine. The immediate conclusion one could draw from these points is that the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity was an artificial coup in an artificially created country, and as such, it cannot resonate with most people.

Russia’s miscalculations
Within this ideological framework, after the demise of the Yanukovych regime, Russia faced an artificially created state, with an artificially installed regime in a population that identified as Russian, practically no armed forces and no support across the country for the government. Given this mindset, it was absolutely natural for the Russian leadership to expect that a small push would be enough for the Ukrainian state to fall like a house of cards. It was also natural to start from Crimea, where pro-Russian sentiment was strong and Russia had a military presence. Crimea, as a part of Russia, bordering a united Ukraine, makes no economic or political sense, but Crimea as a trigger for the expected dissociation of Ukraine was an optimal choice.
Expanding into the Russian-speaking region of Eastern Ukraine was a logical second step. The expectation that the pro-Russian uprising in Donetsk and Lugansk would quickly spread to the Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhya and Kherson regions was also natural for the Russian leadership, considering the Kremlin’s confusion of nationality with spoken language. Such a development would open the continental connection to Crimea, and give Russia control of the key industrial assets it needs. At the second stage, Russia expected similar developments in Odessa (Ukraine’s fourth largest city) and Mykolayiv provinces. This would give Russia control of all it needs regarding the military industry, the Odessa port and a continental connection to Transnistria, a breakaway sliver of land on the eastern border of Moldova and Ukraine that has declared itself a nation. It would also serve as a buffer region between Russia and the pro-Western area of Ukraine. Clearly, if such a quick development were to transpire, the West would have to work hard to refrain from an escalation in the confrontation with the winner. But the plan did not work out, since it was based on Russia’s distorted perception of Ukrainian realities.
The Russian takeover of Crimea caused Ukrainians to unite and forget about their minor differences. The armed forces were quickly restored by the government, volunteers and oligarchs, and Russia barely managed to install pro-Russian governance in parts of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions. There were no mass pro-Russian uprisings elsewhere in Ukraine. As soon as it became clear that Ukraine had survived the first blow and the Russian plan had failed, the West called Mr. Putin’s bluff and gradually applied stinging sanctions against Russia.

Putin’s next three possible moves
The key miscalculation in the Russian plan was that it did not factor in the Ukrainian people. “We, The People” is a foreign concept for dictators and ex-KGB officers such as Mr. Putin and his mistake was to see the uprising against the ruthless and thievish Yanukovych regime as a special operation of the West. The rise in patriotic sentiment of the majority of Ukrainians was another nasty surprise for Mr. Putin, who expected that regular citizens would see Russia as a liberator from the artificially installed yoke of Ukrainian nationalists. The power of the extreme nationalists was also grossly overestimated. In an embarrassing goof, on the day of the presidential elections, the Russian media aired what was apparently “inside data from Ukraine” that gave the extreme nationalist Right Sector party’s candidate, Dmitry Yarosh, 36 percent of the vote and first place. In the end, he actually scored slightly more than one percent and finished in last place.
The ultimate result of the war Russia started, grounded in a false concept of Ukraine, is the dead-end situation in which it now finds itself. Mr. Putin cannot back down because of the inevitable public opinion backlash that will arise inside the country. He must also now solve the supply problems. As a matter of fact, the optimisation of logistics was the true reason behind the 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine. He can try to negotiate some kind of deal with the Ukrainian leadership to ease the pressure on Crimea, but this will be nothing more than a temporary solution. Russia can seek to corrupt the Ukrainian leadership into becoming pro-Russian, or it can attempt renewed military action. But Ukraine was changed by the Revolution of Dignity. Corrupt Ukrainian leadership will eventually be forced out onto the street while its military grows ever stronger. International sanctions have turned Mr. Putin into a problem for Russia’s own oligarchs. Time will soon show what course of action the Russian leader will end up choosing.

Currently an independent consultant, Dr. Zhalko-Tytarenko is the former head of Ukraine’s National Space Agency and a member of National Disarmament Committee of Ukraine.

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Category: Dispatches

About the Author ()

Currently an independent consultant, Dr. Zhalko-Tytarenko is the former head of Ukraine's National Space Agency and a member of National Disarmament Committee of Ukraine.

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