Predictions are a very high risk activity, especially when offered by a rank amateur and when the evidence is so mixed. There are some signs of truth that can serve as a guide. But predictions are inherently not about what is truth but about what may be and what could be and what will be. Will there be further military action outside Crimea. I can equivocate by engaging in possibilities and probabilities but if I say military activity in Eastern Ukraine is unlikely but also a distinct possibility, to some degree or other I have to get off the fence. Putin ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops participating in military exercises near Ukraine’s border to return to their bases. That suggests that there will NOT be Russian military activity in the eastern Ukraine. On the other hand, Putin has said unequivocally that he would use the threat of wider military intervention to reassert Russian influence over all or part of Ukraine and it would be legal since requested by the legally elected president, Viktor Yanukovych. The West has unequivocally signaled that military force will not be used in Ukraine. But will the West continue to be given that choice if Russia actually invades Eastern Ukraine?
As the West prepares strong economic sanctions, Russia’s agricultural oversight agency withdrew its decision to lift the ban on imports of U.S. pork. At the same time, the subsidy for lower-priced gas from Gazprom for Ukraine was dropped (prices will rise from $268.50 to $400 per thousand cubic feet) and future economic measures were promised against Ukraine. The U.S. has already released oil from its strategic reserves. Economic warfare will assuredly escalate. While Putin refuses to recognize the planned Ukrainian election as well as the results, he set in motion a referendum that will be held in Crimea on 16 March; he promised he would recognize those results. The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement just yesterday which suggested the aggressive Russian efforts would be restricted to the Crimea “taking into complete account the interests of all Ukrainians and all regions in the search for an exit from the crisis and also the respect of the right of the residents of Crimea to determine their fate on their own in accordance with the norms of international law.” Vadim Karasyov, a Kyiv-based political analyst, went further and interpreted this to mean that Russia would NOT be incorporating Crimea, but would be satisfied with Ukrainian independence.
1. Crimean Separatism
Crimeans vote for independence on 16 March or whether they want union with Russia. The original motion for a ballot when the parliament lacked a real quorum and when the vote was scheduled for 30 March was for union with Russia without surrendering being part of Ukraine by approving the following statement: “The Autonomous Republic of Crimea has state independence (my italics) and is a part of Ukraine on the basis of agreements and accords.” Last Thursday (6 March), the supreme council in Crimea passed a motion with 78 of 100 legislators (8 abstained) in favour that the referendum would be scheduled for 16 March and would be on whether to join Russia OR have greater independence while remaining de jure part of Ukraine. The two choices are:
1. “Are you in favour of Crimea becoming a constituent territory of the Russian Federation?”
2. “Are you in favour of restoring Crimea’s 1992 constitution?” [That constitution provided that Crimea is part of Ukraine – there is no provision for secession – but its relations with Ukraine are determined by a treaty mutually agreed upon between Crimea and Ukraine.] As worded, the ballot inherently rejects both the 2004 constitution, which does not presume relations are determined by mutual agreement, and the current treaty between Ukraine and Crimea.
Since Sevastopol residents will be allowed to take part in the referendum – which means all the sailors in the whole warm water fleet of Russia as well as all the Russian soldiers now stationed in Crimea – the outcome of the vote will likely be for joining Russia even if Russia leaves open the question of whether they will accede to this request as a bargaining chip. OSCE observers will not likely be permitted to observe the voting.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said the new government will resist separatism. “We are committed to the territorial integrity and unity of my country. And the new government will do everything and use all legal means [my italics] to stabilize the situation in Crimea and to convince the entire world and all Ukrainian neighbors that Ukraine is a sovereign united country and no separatism is allowed.”
The government in Kyiv will be unsuccessful, but Western states will not recognize the independence of Crimea or its joining Russia. I suspect that the West will eventually de facto but not de jure accede to this move, especially given the precedent of Kosovo. However, Crimean secession will not be the cause of significant escalation in the crisis. But there will be an escalation. Crimea’s Deputy Prime Minister, Rustam Temirgaliev (incidentally a Tatar at odds with most other Crimean Tatars), has already said that the decision on secession had already been made and the vote is merely intended to endorse that decision. After that endorsement, Ukrainian troops in Crimea would be regarded as military occupiers and would be invited to take out Russian citizenship and join the Russian army or lay down their arms and be repatriated to Ukraine.
If they do not lay down their arms, will the bases be attacked? Will the Ukrainian fleet that is now under blockade, if they resist surrender, be attacked? Any such ultimatum will, I suspect, induce a much greater response in the West and the threat of much greater responses is intended to deter Putin from taking further aggressive action in Crimea as well as other parts of Ukraine. In any case, Russia has no need to attack the bases or the Ukrainian fleet; they are no threat to any eventual outcome if left bottled up. Moreover, they symbolize the impotence of Kyiv vis a vis decisions in Crimea. The real danger comes from the 10,000+ militia working alongside Russian troops and the ones most likely responsible for kidnappings and intimidation of foreigners, including journalists.
2. Eastern Ukraine
Unless NATO challenges Putin and threatens military action in eastern Ukraine, expect bullying thuggery in Luhansk, and Donetsk (the Donbas), the mining and industrial rust belt of Ukraine. Two weeks ago there was a possibility that those areas would try to follow the example of Crimea by voting for independence while insisting they are still part of Ukraine and that Putin would deploy troops to prevent “hooliganism” and ensure order and protection for the Russian minority but again deny that they are Russian troops. However, this is now far less likely given NATO’s military response, the escalating economic sanctions and the unanimity in the West opposing Russia’s moves.
Putin will not accept Ukraine’s efforts to become part of Europe and will go all out to ensure that Ukraine remains within Russia’s “sphere of influence”. As a result of his moves on the Crimea, however, Putin will lose Ukraine except for Crimea. Depending on how he plays his hand and how the West responds, this will also include any future influence in the Donbas.
Moldova, south and west of Ukraine with Romania on the east, may be the next area of crisis rather than eastern Ukraine, both to distract from the Ukraine controversies and because of its internal dynamic. Like Ukraine, Moldova has also come under pressure to drop its negotiated association agreement with the EU that has not yet been put on the implementation track. Further, the Russians have troops as “peacekeepers” – their status is disputed – in the eastern province of Trans-Dniester (Trans Dnestr or Transnistria) that borders Ukraine on the east with the Dniester River on the West. The majority of the population is Russian and Ukrainian. Like the Donbas, the area is the industrial heartland of Moldova. The area since 1792 was once part of the Russian Empire. Like Odessa, just to the east, the Ukrainians there speak Russian. Further, though Trans-Dniester is part of Moldova, like Crimea it has an autonomous legal status as the Pridnestrovian MoldavianRepublic – Pridnestrovie.
Set up in the aftermath of the disintegration of the USSR and in response to 1989 decisions by Moldova to make Moldovan the only official language and adopt the Latin alphabet, a full scale war was fought between this region and Moldova in 1992. The war ended with Russian intervention and, without changing the legal status, Pridnestrovie became a satrap of Russia. Though not recognized anywhere as an independent republic except by South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Pridnestrovie has its own constitution, flag, national anthem, president, parliament, military, police and even its own currency. Most residents have Moldavian citizenship (300,000) but another 250,000 have either or both Ukrainian and Russian citizenship. In the 2004 census of a population of 555,347 people, 177,785 (32.1%) were Moldovans, 168,678 (30.35%) were Russians and 160,069 (28.8%) Ukrainians with 8.7% Bulgarians, Gagauzians, Roma, Jews, Poles, etc.
In a 2006 referendum by the Pridnestrovie government, 97.2% of the population favoured independence from Moldova and free association with Russia. The EU has not recognized the referendum results. Pridnestrovie, like Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, are really outposts of the Russian Federation as will be Crimea if it is not incorporated right into Russia.
Pridnestrovie is not the only Moldovan territory that could mimic Crimea. In the Gagauzian strip of Moldova south-west of Pridnestrovie with the Ukraine border to its east, the province is more akin to the provinces of eastern Ukraine. However, since 1994, it has had its own special legal status within Moldova. A 2 February referendum there voted 98% in favour of closer ties with Russia than the EU and voted for secession if Moldova joins the EU.
5. Economics and Sanctions
U.S.the EU froze the assets of 18 people held responsible for misappropriating state funds in Ukraine, echoing similar action in Switzerland and Austria as well as Canada. The Russian parliament began drafting legislation that would allow the authorities to confiscate assets belonging to U.S. and European companies, but nothing likely will come of it. Nevertheless, economic warfare on a number of fronts between the West and Russia will continue to escalate.
6. Cyber Warfare
Expect extensive efforts by Russia to sabotage Ukrainian communications, efforts that are already underway. Crimea has already been cut off from access to Ukrainian broadcasts.
If Russia actually resorts to using military means to retain Ukraine as part of Russia, which I now think is highly unlikely, Ukraine will resist militarily and NATO will have to decide whether it acquiesces to an anschluss in Ukraine, then the more likely Putin will resort to military means to retain Ukraine. The West has not taken up the half of a two-pronged strategy based on a threat and possible use of the military lest this risk leading to war between Russia and the West. If escalation in the use of the military by both sides is avoided, then the West will have won the major battle for Ukraine excluding Crimea without a fight.
8. Protests in Russia
There will be extensive protests within Russia against the West aided and supported by the state as well as protests against Putin’s policies, but the latter will be ruthlessly squelched.
9. The Caucasus
Expect Muslim separatists and extremists to try to take advantage of the period of turmoil forthcoming.
10. The Middle East
Cooperation between the West and Russia on Syria will disappear, but the dismantling of the chemical weapons will continue. There will be virtually no effect on the Iran negotiations except that Russia will lose any position of influence.
11. Viktor Yanukovych
He will not return to Ukraine to stand trial but he will be able to retain little of his acquired booty and will be barely but marginally tolerated by Russia. Putin has little use for losers who let him down while stealing on a grand scale.
12. The Budapest Memorandum of 1994
It will either be used to back down from the brink (unlikely) or become a dead letter, the more probable outcome.