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Dhaka Tribune

That’s all, folks

Update : 08 Apr 2014, 06:53 PM

The past few months have seen a slow-burn crisis of political legitimacy in Ukraine explode into protests, a coup, military occupation, territorial annexation, sanctions, war threats, and talk of a new Cold War. From Estonia to Transnistria, rumours now abound that more Russian takeovers are imminent and, given that the Western response to the crisis has been negligible, these fears are justifiable. But how likely is a new Russian annexation, and what could be done about it?

First, it would be best to reiterate a point that I have made elsewhere – Russia was confident its actions in seizing Crimea would not cause a war, and it executed its “Crimean maneuver” at the time it did because events were fluid and Ukraine and Europe were taken by surprise. Whilst Russia ran the risk of sanctions, it correctly judged that these would be minor because Europeans don’t care enough about Ukraine to pay more on their electricity bills, lose lucrative investments in Russia, or stop receiving Russian money through European finance hubs.

For a taste of Europe’s attitude to the “crisis” you only have to look at the actions of France – they are still going to sell Russia 1.37bn euros worth of warships alone over the next few years, and have an equally large market in military technology sales. These are not the actions of a particularly concerned European power, and we can pull out similar examples of parochial interests across every major European state. We might also say that the USA will be just as half-hearted about sanctions and won’t bear the costs alone, whilst it should be obvious that no one is interested in a general war with Russia.

This European-American tolerance of Russian moves could be interpreted as a green light for more Russia annexations, but there are limits to European tolerance. Russia recognises this, which is why it went so far to deny it was even occupying Crimea and then put so much stock into the referendum.

Putin’s Russia was treading as lightly as is possible for the metaphorical Russian bear. Simply put, Russia’s concern is this: If sanctions are expanded their impact might not worry Putin’s regime immediately but it will cause trouble for Russia over the next few years.

If Russia seizes more territory soon it must be in Eastern Ukraine, but unlike in Crimea it will not be easy for Russian forces to cross the border and gain de facto control whilst denying its forces are on the ground. If they were to take Eastern Ukraine it might involve some shooting, which is something Russia would wish to avoid. They gained Crimea because it was easy, because there wouldn’t be shooting, and because it contains Russia’s most important Black Sea base.

Eastern Ukraine doesn’t stack up to such lofty criteria. Although some government reports in the USA and elsewhere indicate that Russian troops could snatch territory in Estonia or Transnistria this would be qualitatively different and Russia would be running a much higher risk of serious sanctions whilst it is hard to see what it would gain.

All this said, Russia could take more territory in the future if they wish to discount the costs of sanctions and believe that NATO would do nothing more than protest. If this is what happens, it will be the end of NATO’s eastern expansion and possibly result in a contraction. Conversely, if Russia pushes into more territory, and NATO begins even a limited military response, that forces Russia to relinquish at least some of its gains it will almost certainly result in the expansion of NATO.

It will be interesting to see whether the Ukraine issue makes NATO and the West more or less pro-Ukrainian. Clearly, NATO states don’t feel too strongly about Ukraine, but being humiliated by Russia might reinvigorate their interest. There is also one consequence of Russia’s seizure of Crimea that no one is talking about. Now that there will be no more Crimean Russian voters influencing elections in Ukraine, there might be a more permanently anti-Russian flavor to the Ukrainian legislature. Likewise, if Russia takes over eastern Ukraine, the resulting rump state of Ukraine will have a decidedly different electoral character than it does today.

Right now, Russian interests and power are expressed through pro-Russians within Ukraine and they act as a democratic handbrake on anti-Russian policy. Paradoxically, should Russia seize more territory in Ukraine it might be risking a big part of its regional influence. If I were in Putin’s shoes right now I would be happy with things the way they are. Crimea in the pocket, NATO humiliated, and Ukraine politically divided – it’s a good week’s worth of work for the Kremlin.

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