The Ukraine relationship with Russia is a special case. Propaganda aside, Ukraine was always a reluctant member of both Tsarist and Soviet Russia. It was one of the first to break away during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The history of Ukraine in the 20th century, in fact, was one of separatism. During the Russian civil war
, Ukraine was the focus of White Russian resistance to the Bolsheviks. The borders of modern Ukraine, in fact, are a close echo of the area occupied by the White Russian forces under Denikin.
In the Second World War, it was the centre of intense fighting, with Ukrainian troops fighting on the side of the Germans, including Cossacks. After the war, the devastated Ukraine, which was the scene of some of the heaviest and most continuous fighting of the war from 1942 to 1944, rejoined the Soviet Union, not that it had any choice in the matter.
At the end of the Soviet Union, an expedient, if extremely tense, nitpicking, arrangement was made regarding the Black Sea Fleet
and Russian military resources in the region. Ukraine renounced any claim to Russian nuclear weapons, and the Black Sea military assets were divided. Since then, the relationship with Russia has progressively soured.
The presence of a large number of ethnic Russians in southern Ukraine is one of the demographic shifts of the postwar era. The numbers are vague, but sufficient for a “separatist” movement to appear where no indications of a separatist movement previously existed. Nobody’s buying that.
The Russian approach to former Soviet Republics is an invariably interesting, and invariably dangerous, situation. So far, the pattern is that clashes and conflicts have been allowed to escalate into real shooting wars. In Ukraine, this policy of border wars may be a serious mistake, particularly in the Crimea.
The military situation- Not so straightforward
A few basic points:
1. The Ukrainian military is much smaller than Russia’s but not a pushover. It has near-equivalent technology to the Russians, including a few upgraded, semi- Westernized units.
2. The ratio of power in relation to Russian forces in the Crimea favors Ukraine.
3. The Crimea is relatively isolated. Direct supplies from Russia can only come by land over the Kerch peninsula to the east, by sea or by air. That could be difficult, if Ukraine decides to cut off supply routes. If blockaded, the Russian presence in the Crimea could become an embarrassment to Russia.
4. If the Crimea is isolated, Russia could easily shift the scales by launching an invasion, but with immediate, expensive consequences for Russian trade and diplomacy. This would be seen as a war of aggression and an excellent excuse to punish Russia economically, at no risk whatsoever to Western interests, purely on the basis of violation of sovereignty
, if for no other reason.
5. The Russian pipelines through Ukraine are natural, easy, targets. These pipelines equate to hard cash for Russia, and were one of the original issues which led to the Ukrainian revolt against the former regime.
6.Nor would the war necessarily be quick. NATO may not intervene directly, but Ukraine could easily access military supplies from the West and elsewhere, creating not so much a second Afghanistan as a long, costly, politically micromanaged exercise more like Georgia, but going on for years.
The other scenario- Why success could be worse than failure
The worse situation, ironically for Russia, would be a rare success in one of these border wars. The current playbook in Crimea is a bit too simple to work as a general policy.
This is the format:
1. Russian ethnic groups want to join Russia.
2. Russia supports Russian groups with military force.
3. Russia makes fait accompli move of forces into disputed zone.
4. Success = Region becomes part of Russian Federation.
If you consider the sheer number of “Russian ethnic groups” all over the former USSR, the sheer size and number of possible Russian commitments on this basis is staggering. The former USSR in the west was to some extent repopulated by Russian citizens after the war, with a truly messy mix of different ethnic and social groups from Moscow to the Polish border as the result.
The Crimean method, if used as national policy, could lead to a rash of problems. The former USSR republics are very much on their guard. The stampede to join the EU by former Soviet bloc nations is also a move directly away from re-Russianization. The Crimea alone could be used as a good working model for reasons to join the EU.
If the Crimean incident returns one small bit of land to Russia, it could easily alienate the rest of the former Soviet Republics. It would definitely give them an incentive to move west, rather than east, politically and economically.
Even allowing for the truly in character, historically Russian, reptilian, cold blooded and patient, nature of Russian Federation foreign policy, this is a game of chess, and it’s not over. Occupying a square is never going to be more than occupying a square. The actual value of the square in the game can change, rapidly. As all good chess players know, it’s the position of your king that matters and accumulated risks tend to lead to deterioration of positions. This isn’t a Cold War game, and Soviet-think isn’t likely to be the best game strategy.
It’s now nearly 100 years since 1917. In that time, the borders of Catherine the Great’s Russia have moved east, nearly to Smolensk. Another hundred kilometres or so, and the boundaries of the old 12th century Principality of Rus will be the western borders
of modern Russia.
That was 900 years well spent, wasn’t it?
Separatism goes both ways.