Putin has flexed his muscles. He has shown Western threats to be hollow. We can send the fleet hither and yon, and talk of sanctions, but we can’t do much to inflict economic damage on Russia.
Time to resort to a time-proven strategy. Let them do themselves in. The Russians have a long history of self-defeating strategies. Tell McCain and Nuland to go home to their bunkers, and wait. Send a note to the armaments industry that the US military budget, 39% of the world total, hasn’t won any wars and doesn’t even seem to prevent provocations from uppity Islamists and now Russians. It’s time to try something else. Actually, the massive, peaceful protests of Maidan appear to me to be the wave of the future.
The Russians took Crimea with their typical subtlety – none at all. They grabbed it, and it is theirs. They had a historical claim. Crimea had only been annexed to Ukraine in 1954, long after the 1922 establishment of the Ukrainian SSR under the Soviets. Ever since it has been designated as an “Autonomous Republic” and maintained its ethnic Russian majority. Russian media predominated, and it carried pro-Russian propaganda. A fair percentage of the population was known to have Russian sympathies.
The mechanics of the takeover were crude. Invade the place with soldiers without insignia, take over the legislature by force, and declare an election. Print the ballots themselves, with no favorable option, select their own poll observers, and count the ballots themselves. Surprise, surprise! They got a Stalinesque 97% of the vote. The Russians clearly didn’t trust the people of Crimea enough to allow an honest election.
The Crimean Tatars have been a model Muslim minority, but Muslim nonetheless. Fertile, and different. Stalin deported them en masse to the hinterlands of the USSR in 1944. Many of them died of the hardship, and their lands were stolen by the time they returned. The question of restitution has been an ongoing issue for the Ukrainian government. Now it is Russia’s problem – and the Tatars make up an eighth of the population. One hears that they have friends in Dagestan and Chechnya.
Will the Russians go for more? There are good reasons not to. Crimea is an isolated peninsula. If Russia were to invade Ukraine, they would have no pretext other than “protecting ethnic Russians,” which is awfully thin. Half the country speaks Russian, but they have no love for Russia. Can anybody conceive of Great Britain invading Ireland on the pretext of “protecting the English” just because English is the dominant language in Ireland?
Google “Ukraine Holodomor map” and you find that the people Stalin starved to death in 1932 were mostly Russian speakers. My wife’s grandparents among them. There is no love lost between the Russophone Ukrainians and Russians. Almost all of my friends here in Kiev speak Russian natively, and they loathe the Russians. The language issue is blown out of proportion. Except for the far west, the country is amazingly bilingual – more so than Canada and Belgium, about on a par with Switzerland.
Going west from the Russian border, the first geographical barrier one encounters is the Dnieper River, which bisects the country. Downtown Kiev is on the right bank. I live on the left bank. Accept my assurances that I and my neighbors, while we speak the language, have no desire to be Russian. Putin would be stretching his resources very thin to occupy so much hostile population.
World economies, especially those of the USSR, were highly regional at the time of the last world war. They were largely self-sufficient, and poor. Now, Europe buys most of Russia’s exports. Ukraine exports food, machinery and software to Russia and Europe. The economic impact of war, in percentage terms, would be greater now for all participants. One can ask if the Russians would still swoon over Putin without a shirt when their standard of living had fallen by half on account of his wars.
Russia doesn’t have much industry. The economy depends on natural resources exports. The West has hitherto been too lazy to look for alternatives. Should they be moved to do so, they could reactivate their nuclear facilities and bring shale gas online more quickly. They could also turn down the thermostats. Does anybody remember the privations the English and Germans put up with in WWII? If Europe showed that level of grit today, the Russians would be out of business tomorrow.
This demonstration of Russian disregard for world opinion is almost certain to cool any ardor for investing in Russia. BP and other western companies have been burned already in joint ventures intended to modernize Russia’s natural resources industries. They are unlikely to sign up for more. Pay close attention to how Shell and others holding drilling leases of the coast of Crimea are treated.
Unlike the case in the wars of the last century, the world will be quite able to observe the treatment of homeowners and businesspeople under the new Russian regime. They have to be engaged in a fight for the hearts and minds of the Crimean people. This will limit their scope of action. It will almost certainly be quite costly, as they have to make whole a Crimean economy which was largely dependent on Ukrainian trade and tourism. Assuming that Crimeans retain the Internet, Russian missteps in integrating these lost “brothers” will be highly visible.
Putin seems to have been excessively concerned about Ukraine joining NATO. They took a hard look at NATO about 2007. What did it offer? A high financial commitment to modern weapons which would have been useful for fighting the Russians. A wonderful way to bleed the country dry and lose its young men in service of western interests. They passed.
Putin was also concerned about Ukraine joining the EU. Again, it seems far-fetched. The EU would have made uncomfortable demands on Ukraine with respect to opening its borders and accepting all kinds of diversity which are distasteful to the Slavic palate. EU non-governmental organs are very busy here beating the drums for gay rights and ethnic minorities, but it should be clear to everybody that the Ukrainians are just not that concerned. They are happy with things as they are, thank you, and the Ukrainians would generally support Putin’s positions with respect to homosexuality and Muslims. If Putin had just left well enough alone, he might not have been disappointed with the result.
The loss of Crimea represents the loss of two million Russian speaking voters whose political sympathies generally lay with Russia. It is almost certain to scare and alienate many Ukrainian voters who were not so sure before. While Ukraine will have a pluralistic government, one can expect it to be at least marginally more pro-Western.
Writing as a libertarian, it appears to me that Ukraine is more likely to remain free from the dictates of political correctness – diversity and all that – as they follow their own natural inclinations and avoid alliances with the EU which might goad Putin into further action. This might not be all bad.