Crimea: Back to the Future

Sometime in the 1990s, Homer Simpson goes to Russia and, against all odds, manages to elicit a Russia-USA spat at the UN, not too unlike the ones that the Cold War is stereotypically known for. Suddenly, the shadows grow longer, the Russian delegate presses on a button and ominously laughs as his placard flips. It reads “U.S.S.R”. Immediately, at the Red Square in Moscow, a Soviet flag is thrown over a giant peace sign, tanks burst out from underneath parade floats and Lenin’s mummy breaks free from the Mausoleum, with a zombie-like “Must.Crush.Capitalism.”

Similarly in less than a week, Sochi’s parade floats were replaced with unidentified soldiers in Crimea. Where do we go from here?

Western Response: Diplomatic, Economic, and the future of NATO

For the West, the first draw of cards has unveiled already imposed diplomatic sanctions and economic sanctions which are slowly emerging from the drawing board. Diplomatic sanctions started rolling first. In a photo that circulated the globe, Obama got down to business with sleeves rolled up to the elbows and a landline phone in his hand. In less than a day, the G7, the original composing part of Western industrialized countries, suspended preparations for the G8 meeting in Sochi. A blow to Putin, who has been counting on a return to his gargantuan fixed asset investment. The move is serious, but Putin took this one on the chin. To make this one sting, economic sanctions must follow.

The West’s diplomatic unity crumbles in the domain of economic sanctions. The US can freeze financial assets of Russian oligarchs. It can crumple trade and investment talks. But, it must convince its European allies to play along. A UK government briefing document was accidentally leaked. In it, one of the bullet points stated the City of London, a favorite hub for Russian cash, must not be harmed by sanctions. France, meanwhile, is going ahead with a €1.2 billion sale of two Mistral-class warships to Russia’s Pacific Fleet. Ironically, one of the ships under construction has been named “Sevastopol”, after Russia’s strategic naval base in Crimea. United front, anyone?

With Germany, things get even trickier. According to Germany’s Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, the country gets 40% of its gas and a third of its oil from Russia. Moreover, 6,200 German firms are active in Russia, with a total investment of €20 billion and 300,000 German jobs dependent on trade with Russia. Economic sanctions will hurt Russia, but their impact will be limited as economic interests divide the Western bloc.

What about a military response? It’s true. It has been muted up to now, but the military dimension of the response is likely to be more so effective in the long-run. For one, NATO regained its sense of purpose, just in time for the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Washington’s strategic re-orientation to the Pacific. A dozen US fighter jets have been assigned to patrols along Eastern Europe. European defense spending reductions are being reconsidered. The Baltics and Poland are planning for more spending. Even traditionally neutral Sweden is shifting its defense spending policy. Needless to say, there is less reason to be considerate of Russia’s concerns over the European Defense Shield, originally formed for protection from Iran. As it stands, we are back to the future of the Cold War-era security dilemma.

The Kremlin is “In Another World”, Out of Touch With Reality

On March 2nd, after a call with Putin, Merkel told Obama that she got the impression that Putin is “in another world”. For the last decade, Russian media has been shifting from reporting facts, to promoting pro-Kremlin spin, and finally to Soviet-era whitewashing. Their “other world” is somewhere between 19th century pan-Slavism, Orthodox Christian moral superiority, and a mentality besieged by the West’s supposed conspiratorial New World Order.

During the crisis in Crimea, misinformation in the Russian media reached new heights. Reports of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees streaming into Russia have been shown as false when it was demonstrated that the footage was actually taken at the Ukraine-Poland border. Some Russian channels report investigations of the links between current Ukrainian politicians with the Ukranian mafia in the US and neo-Nazis in Ukraine. Some Russian anchormen went on to suggest that the protestors fighting police on the streets of Kiev were trained by the West at secret camps in Poland, of course, only after they did a tour of duty fighting Assad in Syria. Often these weekly “geopolitical analysis” news segments include soundtracks, with the most popular being Hanz-Zimmer music from the Dark Knight. And all this, on the most popular Channel 1.

Thanks to these shows, a majority of Russians have a particular take on world politics. They are concerned with NATO’s expansion, believing that the West is out to entrap them. For example, NATO anti-missile defense systems are seen in real-politik terms. The deployment of such systems in Europe weakens Russia’s second strike capabilities and hence jeopardizes its security in the first place. This further feeds beliefs in Western conspiracies to break up the Russian Federation in order to have cheap access to its natural resources. Furthermore, they do believe that the rights and security of its ethnic compatriots are being compromised in Ukraine at the hands of what they believe are the descendants of right-wing Nazi-era collaborators. Add to the mix the belief that Russians consider Kiev as the 988 A.D. historic cradle of the Russia’s Christian civilization, and you have a toxic mix that fuels aggression.

On the Balance: The New Status Quo

On the balance, the inability of the West to show a resolved front and find a point of leverage against Putin will lead to an unconformable status quo. Crimea will join the league of other unrecognized autonomous provinces in the post-Soviet space, such as Transnistria, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. Russian military movements beyond Crimea in Eastern Ukraine are not Putin’s intentions, now that he secured a warm water naval base in perpetuity. Putin will, however, prompt up pro-Russian movements towards greater decentralization of power in Ukraine, away from a unitary state and towards a federation. Lastly, Putin has gained in domestic support, so the tsar is here to stay.

Meanwhile, NATO will consolidate further, scale up the European Defense Shield, and defense spending reductions will be revised. Europe will also move to reduce its dependence on Russian fossil fuels, suspending the construction of the North and South Streams, a new generation of pipelines from East to West. But, it will take time before the new infrastructure comes online and processes imports of American gas. Ukraine will undergo an uneasy transition as it swallows an economic assistance package from the IMF. It also has the potential to become a European democracy, as long as the West does not give up on it in a period of hardship.

Key Lessons from History

Several publications as well as Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs have gone on record stating that Putin’s arguments for the invasion of Crimea are not too different from those brought forward by Hitler for the annexation of Austria and Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1938. The reference is ominous, not least with the fact that the Olympics have just passed. One professor at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations has already been forced to resign for making a similar comparison.

That being said, another historic reference also comes to mind. Exactly a century ago, the continent devolved into total war. Along the domino chain of pan-European mobilization, one great power mobilized after another. One of the then great powers stated its casus belli as defending its kin against an Austro-Hungarian reprisal. This is another lesson from history that the West must not forget as it weighs the appropriate response to the crisis in Crimea.