This probably won’t be my most well crafted piece of analysis and will likely be more of a ramble, however…
So the Ukraine…a map can be found here: http://www.infoplease.com/atlas/country/ukraine.html
As you can see it has Russia to the east, the Black Sea to the south, Belarus to the north and Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland to the west. Those last four nations are all members of NATO (I’m going to assume you know what NATO is. If you don’t, please ask. In this situation I, for once, won’t take the piss.)
You can see the little sticky out bit at the bottom of the Ukraine? That’s the Crimean peninsular. You can also see that as well as only being connected to the rest of the Ukraine by a relatively tiny spit of land, it is only separated from mainland Russia in the east by a narrow body of water known as the Strait of Kerch.
A little bit of history. The Crimean War? Charge of the Light Brigade? Florence Nightingale? Mary Seacole? That’s right all took place on that sticky out bit. Secondly, and more important in the context of the situation at hand, the Crimean peninsular only became part of the Ukraine in 1954. It was handed over by the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (who was himself a Ukrainian and responsible for Soviet side of the Cuban Missile Crisis). Prior to that it was either part of Russia as a whole or an autonomous region within the Soviet Union. It has always had very close links to Russia. It is currently dominated by people who identify themselves as Russians. Russian is the pre-dominant language. However there are also ethnic Ukrainians as well as a small number of Crimean Tatars.
Another historical note: During the Second World War, the Tatars suffered mass deportation at the orders of Josef Stalin for collaboration with the Nazis. I don’t know how true it is, I’ve never really looked into it and it is outside of the scope of this piece.
So the rest of the Ukraine. Very very roughly split along east/west lines. Those in the east of the country identify more with Russia or even as Russian. Those in the west identify more with central European countries and ergo “The West”.
So more background. In the elections in 2010 Viktor Yanukovych was brought into power with roughly 48% of the vote with approximately 67% turnout. All monitoring organisations declared that the election was free and fair and all the other good things we in the West expect of Democratic elections. Yanukovych is Pro-Russian and made no secret of that. The opposition was pro western and again made no real secret of that.
Protests kicked off in Ukraine back before Christmas, with the essence of them being about Yanukovych’s decision not to sign a far reaching trade deal with the EU. Other reasons came into it too as you’d expect. In short legitimate protests were taking place against the democratically elected government of the Ukraine. Dialogue took place but to no avail. Then came the spark – Ukrainian police, allegedly belonging to the elite Berkut police unit, opened fire on the protesters. Its unlikely we’ll know for sure the Who, What, Where, When, Why of that decision and the order that everyone opened fire. Suffice to say everything turned ugly and Yanukovych fled the country after first trying to destroy a metric FT of documents. In my opinion if he sanctioned the order to fire on civilians and then fled the country he forfeited all legitimacy to the Presidency. The interim government stepped up made up of opposition members as well as some very unsavoury right wing members of the protest movement. I mean very right wing. Next historical note: during WWII parts of the Ukrainian population outside of the Crimea, were also accused of collaborating with the Nazis. See above point regarding the Tatars.
Wider background: Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 91/92 successive Russian governments have been worried about encirclement from nations allied to the West. You can probably understand their worry. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic all became members of NATO. An organisation which had been created, to Russian minds, to destroy the Soviet Union. Suddenly here it was on the doorstep. Therefore when Ukraine and Georgia started talking about becoming members of NATO, Moscow became very unhappy and did whatever it could to discourage this. In essence the Ukraine has become a bit of an ideological battleground between East and West.
Also since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has sought to reclaim the prestige/power/influence it enjoyed when it was the heart of the USSR and one of the two superpowers on the planet. A nation brought low and seeking its way back to the top should never be underestimated in International Relations terms. Russia wants to be seen and treated as the equal to the USA.
One way Russia has flexed its muscles on the international stage has been through nationalistic rhetoric about protecting all Russians and keeping Russia together. As well as making it difficult for any nation who wanted to look west. Examples include supporting the breakaway republic of Transnistria who broke away from Moldova, the spat in Chechnia and the little invasion of Georgia in 2008 to support the two breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. That, lest we forget devolved into an actual shooting war.
So where were we? Yanukovych overthrown (rightly or wrongly depending on your point of view) and the start of instability in the rest of the Ukraine. Enter Crimea, stage left.
As we know Crimea leans heavily towards Russia. What you might not know is that as part of post Soviet treaties the Russians got to keep the Headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. In essence a bunch of mostly decrepit warships and support vessels, as well as approx 25,000 personnel with supporting aircraft etc. were legally based in Crimea. Most invasions of another nation require a foothold or beachhead to be created first, usually in very violent means. Russia didn’t need to in this case, it already had a legal one. However another thing to note is that all movement of Russian forces outside of those bases has to be approved by the Ukrainians.
Rewind to the end of last week. Identically uniformed and equipped men, very well organised essentially take over key installations in the Crimea such as the airports and government buildings. Some have said that they are local militia groups etc. However local militia tend never to be identically dressed and equipped and never have the transport and armour support that these guys have. So even though they are without any kind of insignia everyone “knows” they are Russians. Likely naval infantry and spetznaz (special forces) from the Black Sea Fleet. However even though everyone knows they are Russians, no one can prove it. Everyone stays calm and the Ukraine doesn’t rise to the provocation. In the midst of the confusion Russia moves in reinforcements. Ukrainian reports indicated approx 2000 troops flown into the Crimea on Friday night. If true they would likely be highly trained airborne forces and more spetznaz. As the hours and days go by the “Russians” have surrounded all Ukrainian military installations in the Crimea and have secured communications routes (roads, airports etc.) into the Crimea. Sensibly Ukrainian forces have not responded. The Ukrainian military in the Crimea was no more than a token garrison force and ill equipped to provide resistance in the Ukraine, especially to a power like the Russians.
So where does that leave us? The West has shouted and demanded, Putin has ignored them. The official Russian line is that they are defending fellow Russians from extremist and nationalist radicals in Kiev. I have even heard the term genocide get used. Really. The Crimea is de facto, if not de jure, under Russian control. The majority of the population appear to be happy with this, although as usual there is limited confirmation for this.
Is this the end? The $64,000 question. Will Russia take the opportunity to seize the Russian leaning provinces in Eastern Ukraine?
This is where it could all go horribly wrong. Realistically the Ukrainian armed forces have no hope of retaking the Crimea by force. They are outmatched by the Russians in key areas such as armour and more importantly air power. They can only advance down one narrow land corridor. They can’t conduct amphibious or airborne operations to outflank Russian positions. They either lack the capability or do not have the necessary superiority in the domain. They cannot achieve tactical or strategic surprise, the Russian will know they are coming.
However the east of the country is a different ball game. The Ukrainians could put up a fight. They will still be heavily outmatched in every department. The two Russian Strategic commands facing the Ukraine, West and South have recent combat experience and a higher proportion of more modern equipment. Also due to the Ukrainian dependency on Soviet era bases, all those bases are orientated to support a war in the west, not defeat an invader from the east. Even though it is almost certain that the Ukrainians would definitely lose they would not be the roll over that the Georgians were in 2008. This war would be a lot more costly for the Russians. Furthermore this situation could spark essentially a civil war between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian militia groups. Who knows where that would end. It certainly wouldn’t be quick or pretty. Threat of an invasion from the east will also act as a strategic distraction to the Ukrainians. If they try to free Crimea they leave themselves open to the east.
Will the West get involved militarily? I’d go so far as to say I’d put money on ‘Not for the Crimea’. The reasons are various: war weariness from UK and US populations, logistical difficulties in getting necessary forces that far east. It is eminently possible but a ball ache to do quickly. Wariness in taking on a nuclear armed power in possession of a conventional military that is more capable than some third world desert republic. Lack of consensus in support of military action from the other European nations, particularly the Germans.
If the Russians invade the east of the Ukraine? I’m still thinking no, but am a lot less certain and certainly wouldn’t put any money on it. We are starting to move towards a tipping point in the credibility of the West in standing up for things it supposedly champions like self determination, freedom from oppression etc. Arguably our credibility is already in tatters after Iraq in 2003 and to a lesser extent Afghanistan. We did nothing to support Georgia and normalised relations with Russia in the short years after, due to the fact that we need them on the international stage to help with issues such as Iran. Also due to them supplying a large chunk of Europe’s gas. Its also worth remembering the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 whereupon the UK, US and Russia agreed to recognise and not interfere with militarily or economically the territorial sovereignty of the Ukraine.
However if we do stand by and let the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine be taken over by Russia are we in danger of repeating the mistakes of 1938? Give us the Sudetenland (part of Czechoslovakia) for it is full of German speakers and then we will be happy…
I’m not for a minute suggesting the situation is exactly the same but could we face this situation again down the road? What other ex Soviet Republics or part thereof could be subject to the same threats? Belarus is already in the pocket of Russia and with a totalitarian government it is unlikely to change. However if the government was ousted? Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are all members of NATO and you can be sure they would be screaming “Article 5!!” (NATO clause obliging all members to come to that nations defence) as soon as Moscow looks at them sideways.
If through any of the means at the West’s disposal we cannot stop the Russians and inflict some kind of punitive measure do we need to recognise that the World has changed once more? How we do have the strength of our (the West’s) supposed convictions in this situation without bringing the spectre of nuclear armageddon to the fore once more? Although it can be argued that the Cold War and the possibility of a nuclear winter represented one of the most stable periods (for everyone outside of Africa and South East Asia) for a hundred years or so. But that’s a different story.
So, as Randall says [For the West]…”Its time to shit or get off the pot”.
Ramble over. I hope it helped. I’m not completely sure it will make sense. Any questions?