Russia: A Historic Strategic Opportunity 26 February 2014
In a nation’s history, opportunities arise on occasions to take a significant strategic action. Russia has such a moment as its neighbour, Ukraine, struggles to deal with an extremely restive population, many of whom are strongly either pro- or anti-Russian. Many of the former live in eastern parts of Ukraine. Some are ethnic Russians, which partly explains their pro-Russia allegiance. However, these people are a pawn in the strategic game that Russia is currently playing regionally and, to some extent, internationally, to enhance its position and to ensure its self-perceived status as a great power.
Russians are Slavs, along with neighbouring Ukrainians, Poles and Byelorussians, and nearby Slovaks, Slovenians, Serbs, Bulgars, Croats, etc. In recent times, the Russians have always been the ‘big kid on the block’. After ejecting the Mongol/Tatar ‘yoke’ in 1480, they established a huge empire that stretched from Europe and the Caucasus across Siberia to Maritime East Asia and throughout Central Asia to Afghanistan. The loss of this empire as one ramification of the 1917 revolutions irked many Russians. In part, this loss inspired the dictator, Josef Stalin (a Georgian whose ‘nation’ also had been in the Russian Empire), to re-establish a similar entity, but under Soviet control. The new name for this ‘empire’ was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), popularly called the Soviet Union. It ultimately comprised fifteen republics. Russia was dominant, as were Russians, part from Stalin. This agglomeration was completed as a result of the USSR’s valiant victory in World War II—or the Great Patriotic War, as Soviet citizens called this conflagration. The Soviet ‘empire’ lasted until about 1990, when it disintegrated for reasons including ideological rigidity, political ineptitude, serious economic inertia, inefficiencies and shortcomings, and imperial overreach, particularly the draining and unsuccessful campaign in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Since this empire’s demise, many Russians have pined for its return as a symbol of renewed Russian greatness. Some have actively sought to achieve this, including possibly Vladimir Putin.
With the greatness of the Russian Empire in the back of their minds, senior Russian leaders in Moscow have to decide whether Russia is now going to rhetorically or actually look after the Russian diaspora living in Ukraine and, if so, how. The rhetorical approach will be to diplomatically pressure Kiev to look after all Russians and to ensure their rights, security and wellbeing. Moscow also may try to economically pressure Kiev, given that Ukraine imports Russian energy and other goods. (Equally, Russian gas supplies cross Ukraine to European destinations.) The actual approach that Moscow may now be contemplating is to deploy Russian troops to protect ‘its’ Russians, or even to annex eastern Ukraine where the bulk of them live. This could become a pressing concern if Ukrainian Russians, particularly minorities located in enclaves outside eastern Ukraine, are severely physically threatened. Any Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory could be on a temporary basis, or permanently. It would depend on Ukraine’s situation and response.
Also with the Russian Empire’s greatness in their minds, Russian leaders must decide on another dilemma facing Russia in Ukraine. This is more strategic and significant for Russia than how to protect the Russian diaspora. The issue concerns the port of Sevastopol, which is located in Crimea in Ukraine and which additionally is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. (Sevastopol is also where a major battle occurred in 1856 during the Crimean War between the Russian Empire and France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire.) When the erstwhile Soviet Union’s assets were being divided, the Black Sea Fleet was shared between Russia and Ukraine. In 1997, both nations agreed the final division of the assets, the creation of their own national navies, and a lease by Ukraine for Russia to use Sevastopol as the base for its Black Sea Fleet until 2017. This has since been extended to 2042.
The matter would have ended there—except for Ukraine’s current serious political instability and Russia’s ongoing irredentist claim to Crimea. Some Russians claim that Crimea should be with Russia for reasons of their shared ethnicity, language, culture, history, geography and involvement in the same former administration. In 1954, a former Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, unilaterally and assertively moved the responsibility to administer the 26,000 sq km Crimean Peninsula from the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Ethnically a Russian, Khrushchev had grown up in Ukraine. At the time, his move was essentially a paper transfer as the USSR was all-powerful and Soviet citizens and administrators cooperated, or were compelled to cooperate, with the whims and wishes of the Communist Party leadership, of which Khrushchev was in charge, based in Moscow. However, Crimea was, and still is, an area populated by Russians or by Russian speakers. Some of these people aspire to be with Russia.
Similarly, some ‘imperialist’ Russians in Russia have long desired that the Crimea should again be with Russia. The challenge for Moscow now, therefore, is to decide whether to re-unify Crimea with Russia. This almost certainly would involve Russia using military assets, including those already stationed in Crimea, plus others that could be moved there quickly, given Russia’s contiguity to Crimea. Russia could justify any such reunification for either strategic, military, security, ethnic and/or historical reasons. Should Russia decide to re-absorb Crimea militarily, many nations would likely condemn this action, but do little else. Crimea is too far away and too hard to get too. It also remains to be seen whether Ukrainians would fight to regain a 60 per cent Russian-majority area that also has a 12 per cent Crimean Tatar minority, both supported by Russian arms. In any case, Mr Putin might just ignore world opinion and do what he perceives is best for Russia—and its greatness.
The current significant instability in Ukraine, particularly if it deteriorates further and violently, offers Moscow a rare historical opportunity: to re-unify Crimea with the Russian Federation. If Russia’s imperialist past is any guide, Crimea’s re-integration may well happen.
26 February 2014