March 5, 2014– Vladimir Putin is at it again. I’ve seen some analysts out there questioning his sanity. No matter. A better way to look at the present Crimean crisis is in terms of Russian history, in which the Crimea has been an on-again, off-again item of the agenda for centuries–since Peter the Great if memory serves me right. In the 19th Century Russia fought two wars with Turkey in which the Crimea figured, including one that featured British and French participation and the famously wrongheaded “Charge of the Light Brigade.” In the 20th Century Stalin deported Crimean ethnics to secure a more homogeneous population there. Crimea (Sevastopol) was the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and the Soviets’ only warm water port.
That remained the case when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. A lengthy and pernicious negotiation followed in which Ukraine obtained recognition of its sovereignty over the land in exchange for a sort of “Imperial China” arrangement–the Russians keeping certain extraterritorial rights and getting a Guantanamo Bay-like 50-year lease on the naval base.
The present crisis has all the earmarks of a maneuver from the naval base. The so-called “pro-Russian militia” are armed and equipped in such fashion that there is an overwhelming probability they are Russian naval infantry. A few days ago I told a friend that we should expect to see a Russian sea- and airlift of additional forces into Crimea and that appears to be underway as I write this. Russian naval vessels, we are told, have blocked off both sides of the Kerch straits–the only place where Russian territory abuts directly on the Crimea–and the logical point from which to send in heavy equipment. Numbers of Russian troops on the peninsula were quoted at 6,000 in the press a couple of days ago, consistent with the strength of naval infantry with the Black Sea Fleet, and 15,000 today, which suggests the buildup underway. (Under the lease agreement Russian weapons at Sevastopol were limited, which is why there needs to be a buildup for the “militia” to acquire tanks and artillery.) If you see pictures of Russian tanks and artillery in the Crimea you can be confident that this reinforcement is, in fact, taking place.
What distinguishes the current crisis from a Russian Bay of Pigs–the 1961 U.S. incursion into Cuba–is that Moscow can play on the sentiments of a large population of pro-Russian Ukrainians. Combined with the paucity of practical measures the West could take to sustain a Ukrainian resistance, that makes a Putin power move not insane but logical– if you postulate that Russia harbors real fears as to its security in the Ukraine, or if you assess that Moscow seeks to regain its former territories.
Secretary of state John Kerry is right to say Moscow’s move amounts to an antiquated–“19th Century” was the phrase he used–exercise in gunboat diplomacy.
It is a fair guess that Vladimir Putin considers the 1992 deal on the Ukraine a giveaway. The successor state to the Soviet Union was weak, the democratic forces strong across the entire former union. Since then Russia has regenerated much of its strength while the Ukraine remains marginal. As Moscow showed in Georgia a few years ago, it is quite willing to take military actions in the former socialist republics. But as in Georgia–and as Kerry seemed to allude with his remark–the era of high imperialism is over. Russia ultimately had to withdraw from Georgia. Whether Putin can sustain his Ukraine intervention remains an open question. But for my money the way forward is to reassure Moscow as to the security of its interests in the Crimea while helping the Ukrainian republic to regain its footing.