Russia’s European Designs: To Weaken, Not to Join

“Let God confirm! Let God strengthen, that we would be United for all eternity!” - Statement of the National Assembly led by Cossack Bogdan Khmelnitsky at the Council of Pereyaslav, uniting Ukraine with Russia.


All Options Lead to “Victory”

Current debate is focused on Russia’s actions in Crimea, the political crisis in Ukraine at large, or Western impotence. Russia’s long-term strategy is missing from the conversation. Perhaps Moscow does not have one, but that would be a foolish assumption. So what is motivating Russia to focus its attention on a tiny peninsula where some Russian speakers it could care less about reside?

It’s not to protect the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol; nor is it to squash any perceived — or real — fascist threat. Russia has grander ambitions. They are to:

  1. Weaken Europe
  2. Break up the European Union
  3. Diminish NATO further

Ukraine’s political woes gave Moscow a window to accomplish these three objectives in one move. There are seldom opportunities for grander strategy.

The results of tomorrow’s referendum won’t distract Russia from its three goals. Two options exist. 1) Crimea votes to become part of Russia; 2) Crimea votes for independence.[i] Both decisions could lead to war between Ukraine and Russia, should Kiev choose to interfere in Russian designs. This is unlikely, Kiev knows it would lose. Crimea will likely go under duress, but peacefully.

Whether or not Russia gets Crimea, Ukraine loses it tomorrow.

Once this occurs, the rest of Ukraine East of Dnieper River is up for grabs. As many articles highlight, this is a largely Russian-speaking part of Ukraine that leans toward Moscow. Russia may not wish to make it part of the Federation due to bureaucratic concerns, but it could make it a second “Belarus.” A state fully dependent and loyal to the Kremlin. Donetsk or Dnepropetrovsk could become the new capital of an “East Ukraine” run by apparatchiks of which there is no shortage in the region.

This large and ethnically divided area may pursue such independence on its own or Russia could force it. What has become clear in this crisis is that Ukraine can’t just shed Crimea tomorrow and then resume business as usual as a unified country. This seems implausible. The state of tension is high enough that a split may lead to a less violent outcome.

Tomorrow’s Crimean referendum, irrespective of its outcome, will be a fait accompli of Ukraine as we know it. The Russian Army is already positioned to play a pivotal part in such a forced irredentism.

  Russian positions and capabilities  | The Guardian

Russian positions and capabilities | The Guardian

Putin’s Binoculars are in Focus

Violence may break out in Crimea after it “becomes” Russian. But this is a thorn Russia is willing to overlook; it would count on the overwhelming support of the local population. And its ability to literally choke off the peninsula if need be by closing highway M17 and turning Armyans’k into a walled access point.

Eastern Ukraine comes next. There are several options that may happen:

  1. Nothing. Ukraine — short of Crimea — returns to politics as usual. It’s fragmented, dependent, corrupt and with no hope of joining the West. Russian meddling prevents modernization and continues to divide the country.
  2. Eastern Ukraine [the blue regions in the map above] breaks away. This creates an unstable “East Ukraine” that is fully dependent on Russia. It is run by a strongman that sees muscle as the only way to prevent civil unrest between Russians and a loud minority of Ukrainians. “West Ukraine” in this scenario is left in a vacuum, vulnerable. It’s leadership may look West, but it is still corrupt and has failed on its promises for years. What would the West do?
  3. War. Eastern Ukraine attempts to break away. Ukraine falls into a civil war. Russia would be involved, but to what extent? It may not matter. Even if this war is “limited,” Ukraine will be set-back a generation. The most likely result of any ceasefire would be to again divide between West and East.
  Putin after requesting “permission to use force”

Putin after requesting “permission to use force”

In any of the three scenarios above Moscow “wins.” Why?

First, let’s not forget that it gained Crimea. Its important strategically, but more importantly historically and culturally. At least in Putin’s mind and that of many Russians that have been subject to intense propaganda recently.

Second, if Eastern Ukraine becomes independent, Russia gains a strategic buffer against Western encroachment. Something it has always wanted and publicly admitted to; deriding the drift of EU and NATO toward its borders. But, perhaps more importantly, it gains West Ukraine, which although a complete basket case will draw in the resources and attention of the West.

Neither Europe nor NATO will fight Russia over Ukraine. Any of it. But in any of the three scenarios, Western responses may lead to Moscow’s three objectives.

  1. Weaken Europe. A Ukraine that goes back to business as usual will be a major strategic concern for Europe. Especially its less developed and poorer, often former Soviet, periphery. This will be a drain on resources. Focus will be on re-spiking defense budgets, this will not really do much of anything to capability. It will only distract from developing industry and reducing unemployment. Another weak state — “West Ukraine” — which is actually not Western or democratic in any real way would become European.
  2. Break up the European Union. The long game. Pity toward war-torn “West Ukraine” may cause the EU to accept it into its nurturing alliance feeling guilt for having neglected it after the Orange Revolution. This would only strain stronger EU members (Germany, France et al.) and make it less likely they will have the capacity for any more bail outs. The UK may finally say enough and leave. A few years ago, this may have seemed ludicrous. But considering the EU was only recently on the brink of ending, the plausibility of this scenario has increased.
  3. Diminish NATO further. Any of these scenarios continue to test NATO’s resolve. However the crisis in Ukraine ends, NATO is likely to hide, trying to cover its inability for action. Or it will begin to expand, providing further assistance to Poland, integrating Finland etc. Who will lead these efforts? The US? Germany? Finding a purpose after Afghanistan will be difficult if it demonstrates ineptitude at home.

There are other options and near infinite scenarios, of course. But it seems increasingly likely that Ukraine will become something else, while the West watches in disbelief. The way it manages this transition after Russian tanks — perhaps not influence — do leave, will be critical.

Is There Anybody Out There?

This is meant to be provocative. There is hope. But even in hope there is reservation. All of this may backfire on Putin. There are Russians that are tired of his KGB way of doing business. Many more Russians simply don’t want war and do seek freedoms.

Could Russia’s leader fall after overextending himself abroad, losing his pulse over domestic issues? Possibly. But those that celebrate this scenario imagine a world where sanctions will send Putin back to the Kremlin or demonstrations will oust him from power. An embarrassed Putin would undermine the West wherever he could and completely squash dissent. An ousted Putin — to be contradictory — would send Russia into another epoch of instability. Who would replace him in such a transition?

His machinations against the West may fall short. Europe, the EU, NATO could demonstrate resolve, unity, and pragmatism. But how? They should have an answer before tomorrow’s referendum and the cascading policy decisions that may reverberate after it.


Mikhail Grinberg is one of the editors here at The Strategy Bridge. By day he consults aerospace and defense companies on corporate strategy and mergers and acquisitions. Mikhail is also on the board of theDefense Entrepreneurs Forum. He dabbles in photography and tweets at @mbgrinberg.


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Notes:

[i] The second option on the referendum asks: “Do you support the restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution and the status of Crimea as a part of Ukraine? As the BBC highlights: The wording “restoring the 1992 constitution” does not make it clear whether this refers to the original version of the constitution, declaring Crimea an independent state, or the later amended version, in which Crimea was an autonomous republic within Ukraine.