Thursday, 27 March 2014

UN vote

The UN has voted to declare the annexation of Crimea illegal. Only ten members backed Russia. They break down as follows: rogue states (North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Zimbabwe); chronically anti-US Latin American countries (Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua); and only two ex-Soviet republics (Belarus and Armenia). I'm guessing Lukashenka must have very mixed feelings However, it's easier to understand why Armenia might be more more enthusiastic. In addition to winning extra Russian aid, Armenia is probably hoping to get Putin to approve its claim to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. The Nagorno-Karabakh Republic exists in a strange limbo, only recognised by other unrecognised states (Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia). Even the Republic of Armenia has not officially acknowledged its independence. Despite this, some of the most prominent members of Armenia's governing elite were politicians in Nagorno-Karabakh, including the current president Serzh Sargsyan and the former president Robert Kocharyan (who had previously been president of NK). Maybe they think it's a good time to unfreeze the conflict with Azerbaijan, especially now that Azerbaijan's main ally Turkey is busy with Syria - as well as banning Twitter and Youtube. Of course, this will all depend on whether it fits Putin's grand strategy.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Sorry, I've been too busy to write a substantial post recently.

Meanwhile, it looks like Putin is taking a breather too - at least on the surface. I imagine he will consolidate in Crimea and remove the remaining Ukrainian troops there before proceeding to the next stage of military action (assuming there's going to be one). He has two months to undermine the credibility of the interim government in Kyiv. Expect plenty of smears and black ops (such as leaking private phone calls).

Putin's unpredictability will help him in the short term. In the long run, it will simply turn Russia into a bigger version of North Korea, feared but not respected. Having an opportunist and blatant liar like Putin as an ally must be looking a less and less attractive prospect for potential partners around the world.


Elsewhere, Window on Eurasia is a blog with some fascinating posts. The latest are on the Kremilin's anti-Western mythology, the problem of the Crimean Tatars and the dilemmas of Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

How to punish Putin

Alexey Navalny in the New York Times (in case anyone hasn't seen it already). Short version: the West should attack the Russian officials who really count (Putin's inner circle and the media oligarchs) as well as investigating Russian financial corruption in the EU and the US.

In the long term, Putin has undermined both the unity of the Russian Federation...
What is truly alarming in Mr. Putin’s rash behavior is that he is motivated by the desire for revenge against the Ukrainian people for revolting against a Kremlin-friendly government. A rational actor would know that the precedent of holding a local referendum to determine sovereignty is risky for Russia — a federation of more than 80 disparate regions, including more than 160 ethnic groups and at least 100 languages.
...and his unique selling point in the outside world:
There is a common delusion among the international community that although Mr. Putin is corrupt, his leadership is necessary because his regime subdues the dark, nationalist forces that otherwise would seize power in Russia. The West should admit that it, too, has underestimated Mr. Putin’s malign intent. It is time to end the dangerous delusion that enables him.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Tuesday's analysis

The next phase of the Ukraine crisis has begun. Now the task is to remove Ukrainian troops from Crimea, ideally by proving resistance is futile but using paramilitaries to intimidate the stubborn into surrender. One nasty development would be if Ukrainian soldiers are taken hostage to use as a bargaining chip in any further conflict in eastern Ukraine.

As I outlined yesterday, Putin will treat Ukraine the same way Russia and its partners treated the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century, although this time the process will be a hell of a lot faster. The principle is "give a dog a bad name and hang him". Russian provocateurs will try to create as much anarchy in Ukraine as possible. Russia will then step in to stabilise the "failed state", claiming the conflict on its doorstep is a danger to its own security as well as complaining the rights of ethnic Russians are being violated (Catherine the Great used concern about Eastern Orthodox believers as a pretext to intervene in Poland).

Putin is a blatant liar and he doesn't feel bad about it. Putin started as a spy and he's never stopped thinking like one. In spying, deceiving others is a patriotic duty not a sin. There is nothing wrong in lying to foreigners to benefit Russia. Putin has been a liar from his first days in office, from the apartment block bombings of 1999 to the claim he would not annex Ukraine on 4 March this year. As Edward Lucas has said, the real mystery is why Westerners have consistently failed to get this. Humouring Putin over the Litvinenko murder was abject cowardice and the debate in the Western media over whether Medvedev would serve a second term as president was always laughable. Diplomacy and naivety are not synonyms. Western foreign policy needs to get real.

Putin is more Mussolini than Hitler. Yes, Putin has copied some of Hitler's moves, but so did Il Duce. Badly. I've already noted the similarities between Putins PR and Mussolinis propaganda, although Putin lacks any Latin flamboyance (he prefers to pose topless by an icy lake rather than cavorting on a sunny Adriatic beach). Huge levels of corruption? Check. Mafia permeates society? Check. Failing battle for births? Check. Militarism without an adequate military? Check.  Like Fascist Italy, Putinist Russia is a self-pitying bully with a massive inferiority complex, whining that other European powers and the USA have failed to show it proper respect and compensating with displays of macho aggression. Unfortunately, in hindsight it's amazing how seriously Britain and France treated Mussolini in the 1930s. Although they protested the invasion of Ethiopia, they were too timid to impose real sanctions on Italy (oil embargos, blocking the Suez Canal to Italian troop ships) for fear of pushing it into the arms of Nazi Germany. World War II quickly exposed Mussolini's pretentions and Cold War II might do the same for Putin.

Cold War II is different from Cold War I. Russia now has no major allies. Putin tried to reach out to China and India in his speech but I doubt they'll want to damage their relations with the USA and the EU to back his opportunism.

Putin probably believes Cold War I never really ended. The 1990s were simply a period of Russian tactical withdrawal forced on it by temporary weakness. No territorial or other treaties signed with its neighbours during this time are necessarily binding because Russia was effectively "acting under duress". The independence of Ukraine is just a two-decade anomaly in the long history of the Russian Empire. This is reflected in the way the independence of the Baltic states between the world wars is portrayed in Russian schoolbooks.

On economic sanctions, the question is: will Russia jump rather than wait to be pushed? I can imagine Putin seizing the initiative by declaring Russia will leave of its own accord before the G8 meets next week.

The cause of nuclear disarmament is pretty much dead. Iran will look at what happened to Ukraine after it gave up its nukes in the 1990s and think, "No thanks, we re better off getting tooled up."

RT comedy - this Strait has no Bering on geopolitics

Last night I glimpsed a Russia Today presenter explaining why Russia was no threat to the USA because the two countries were nowhere near each other. The map behind her didn't show Alaska as American territory.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Rumours of war

I'm just reading Edward Lucas' The New Cold War, published back in 2008 and I'm amazed how much of this crisis was predictable even back then (Lucas is bringing out a revised "I told you so" edition in April).

Maybe everyone reading this blog is aware of this already but Lucas pointed out this passage from Vladimir Socor reporting back in 2008:
According to a witness account, Putin told Bush that Ukraine was “not a real nation,” that much of its territory had been "given away" by Russia, and that Ukraine would “cease to exist as a state” if it joined NATO. In that case, Putin hinted, Russia would encourage secession of the Crimea and eastern regions of Ukraine...

Putin's speech

Preliminary thoughts

Look how Putin used the twofold rhetorical camouflage I described yesterday:
*on the one hand, he appeals to Great Russian nationalism and Soviet nostalgia (Crimea has always been an inalienable part of Russia, Kyiv was the birthplace of Rus') and fear of fascism (the "Banderites" took control in Kyiv)
*on the other hand, he hijacks Western discourse about democracy, human rights and international law: we will protect the rights of the Crimean Tatars; the Crimean Tatars were victims of historical injustice (by my beloved USSR, but let's not mention that fact); the inevitable Kosovo analogy crops up; respecting the will of the Crimean people is democracy in action; respecting Russian opinion polls about protecting ethnic Russians is also democracy in action.

Putin really does want to reconstruct the USSR, maybe not as a proper political entity but as a sphere of influence. He doesn't want anyone meddling in "Russia's backyard" and this definitely includes Ukraine. There was a high level of anti-NATO paranoia, especially about the idea of NATO in Sevastopol (he kept repeating the mantra "Crimea and Sevastopol"). The dissolution of the USSR was an historical injustice. Yeah, we cut some territorial deals in the 1990s but they don't count any more; we only made them because we were weak at the time.

Putin is trying to depict Ukraine since 1991 as ungovernable and anarchic, in need of the stability only Putinist Russia can provide. Hypocritically, he has thrown his "anti-Orange" puppets like Yanukovych under the bus. (A thought: this is how Poland-Lithuania's neighbours partitioned the country in the 18th century: Russia, Prussia and Austria interfered with and undermined Polish democracy then portrayed the Commonwealth as a dangerous anarchic region which needed to be absorbed into the strong, centralised states which surrounded it).

A lot of anti-Western paranoia: the West has been menacing Russia since the 17th century.

Talk about a "fifth column of national traitors" really ominous. Expect further crackdowns on dissent in Russia.

Further thoughts

Putin made no concessions to the West. No de-escalation. Appeals to China and India. It's obvious Putin is not afraid of the EU, only NATO (count the NATO references in his speech). So far, the EU's response has been feeble and divided.

The "fifth column of traitors" may have particular relevance to dissenters within Crimea. A Crimean Tatar has already been murdered. The 3% of dissenters who did not boycott the referendum and voted against secession had better watch their backs. Putin's buddy Hugo Chavez showed the way with his "Tascón list" back in 2003-2004, where he tried to punish anyone who had signed a petition calling for a referendum to remove him. The list of petitioners was used to sack people, ruin careers, deny bank loans and otherwise intimidate opponents. Under international pressure, Chavez officially abandoned its use in 2005, but surreptitiously continued it. Maybe Aksyonov and his gangster friends will try to figure out who voted against them and proceed accordingly. Or perhaps that's too much effort and they'll just beat up anyone flying a Ukrainian flag and any Tatar who gets "uppity".

Some more links

The Chinese view

Nicu Popescu on the Chinese view of Ukraine :
The Chinese strongly disapprove the Russian military intervention in Ukraine at several levels. Russia is an opportunistic supporter of the principle of state sovereignty: it resists military or political interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, or Syria, but practices such interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, while piling up pressure on other post-Soviet states. China is more consistent in its respect of sovereignty as it does not support or practice open military interventions, though it can still be tough with its neighbours. 
The easy recourse by Russia to military means of power projection is also worrying for the Chinese with regard to Central Asia. It is not unimaginable that a country like Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan face a messy succession when their current ageing leaders have left the political stage. The question from a Chinese perspective is then: if such an intervention can take place in Ukraine, why should it not happen in Kazakhstan, too, provided there is a pretext for that?
But China doesn't approve of the Euromaidan uprising either. Countries with pickled revolutionaries on display (Lenin, Mao) are always the most disapproving of genuine popular revolutions (the same would hold true for Venezuela but unfortunately Chavez rotted before he could be mummified).

Russia's propaganda machine

Alan Yuhas on Putin's stirring of anti-fascist hysteria :
Fear of fascists goes a long way in Ukraine, which suffered in the second world war. By definition, fear (“Fascists are coming for your family!”) and confusion (“Fascists? Are there fascists? What’s a fascist?”) matters much more in propaganda than truth (not so many fascists). It doesn’t have to make sense – in fact it’s better if it doesn’t. Incoherent theories of a gay, Jewish, Muslim fascist conspiracy in Kiev don’t matter so long as they’re riling someone up, like a man in Simferopol who told the Guardian: “I mean, I am all for the superiority of the white race, and all that stuff, but I don’t like fascists.”
Moldova worried Transnistria might be next

David Kashi in "International Business Times":
Like Ukraine, Moldova was in talks with the EU over a trade association agreement. Unlike Ukraine, though, Moldova did not succumb to Russian pressure, and signed the association agreement. 
Before the signing of the trade agreement in November, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited Moldova and threatened the country with economic sanctions. 
"Energy is important, the cold season is near, winter on its way,” he said, as quoted by several news agencies. “We hope that you will not freeze this winter.” 
Threatening to cut off natural gas supplies is an old tactic Moscow continues to use. In 2006 and 2009 Russia cut supplies to Ukraine over price disputes.  
More recently, Rogozin said that any actions taken to “hinder the communications of Transnistria with the rest of the world will be a direct threat to the security and constitutional freedom of 200,000 citizens of Russia permanently living in Transnistria,” he said on Twitter, as reported by Interfax. He added that Russia will never forget that “it is the guarantor of constitutional rights of its citizens.” 
Last Thursday, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė said in Brussels that Moldova and other countries may be Russia’s next target.
(I might add more links during the course of the day)


Monday, 17 March 2014

More on Putin's federated Ukraine fantasy

Mark MacKinnon in Canada's Globe and Mail:
.. statements from Moscow on Monday left little doubt that Mr. Putin’s aims extend well beyond Crimea. What he apparently wants to see in Ukraine is a broken, weak neighbour, one left at Moscow’s mercy. 
A statement posted by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Monday called for the new government in Ukraine to “urgently” adopt a new “federal constitution.” 
That reads like code for reinventing Ukraine along the lines of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country that is a collection of loosely united mini-states. It’s not hard to envision what that might look like in Moscow’s vision for Ukraine: an autonomous republic in the Russian-speaking east of the country along the lines of the Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 
Grouped perhaps around the cities of Kharkiv, Donetsk and Lugansk, such a mini-state would naturally look east to Moscow and – of course – ensure that Ukraine never joins the European Union or NATO. For good measure, Russia might even push for Russian-speaking cities in the south of Ukraine (such as Odessa, Kherson and Mykolaev) to be added to this Russkaya Respublika, or to be grouped into another mini-state over which the Kremlin would have influence.
Kyiv will almost certainly say no to any such proposal.
Clearly, the leaked document was never meant to be an offer the West could accept, or even a starting point for serious diplomacy. It was an illustration of Mr. Putin’s anger over the revolution in Kiev, which he views as a Western-sponsored coup d’etat in a country he considers part of Russia’s historic sphere of influence. 
The note Mr. Lavrov presented to Mr. Kerry is akin to a kidnapper’s ransom note, a list of what it will take to keep Mr. Putin – who obviously believes he’s in total control of the situation – from hurting his victim, the country of Ukraine.


So the EU and US sanctions are targeting the ideological clowns in Putin's circus, including Rogozin (mentioned on this blog yesterday) and Surkov (mentioned by AK here ). No financial bigshots, so no real pain - and the weirdo ideologues will probably take these measures against them as a compliment.

Latest rumour is...

...Putin will don his "reasonable mask" again. Showing "humanitarian concern" for pro-Russians, he will press for a federal Ukraine, more autonomy for eastern regions, language rights for russophones. This will allow him to insert some Putinist stooges and Russian nationalist firebrands into local government in the east, effectively hampering Kyiv's ability to take a strong line against Moscow and enabling Putin to interfere in Ukrainian internal affairs on a whim.


Russian strategy and its rhetorical camouflage

Russia aims to rebuild its power in the ex-Soviet Union by responding to separatist movements in two ways. Here's Norman Davies writing in 2008:
When separatists dare to operate within Russia's frontiers, they are to be extirpated without mercy. When they surface on the territory of Russia's neighbours in the so-called "Near Abroad", and especially in the vicinity of vital pipelines, they are to be encouraged.
Compare the fates of Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and - now - Crimea with that of Chechnya. Putin recently made spreading separatist views within the Russian federation a criminal offence punishable by up to five years in jail.

Russia covers up its real strategy in its "Near Abroad" with two kinds of rhetorical bluster:

1. For home consumption, Russia mobilises the anti-Nazi narrative of the Great Patriotic War, drawing on a mixture of popular jingoism and paranoia about foreign powers. This is stoked up by the Putin-controlled media. As we have seen, this anti-fascist fascism doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

2. For foreign consumption, Russia hijacks Western humanitarian interventionist ideas such as R2P ("Right to Protect") and engages in "whataboutery". "What about Kosovo" is a particular favourite? Unfortunately, this does not fit the chronology. NATO's intervention in Kosovo was in 1999. The "frozens conflicts" in Transnistria began in 1990-1992; South Ossetia 1991-92; Abkhazia 1992-93. The First Chechen War was 1994-96. If there hadn't been Kosovo, Russia would have cited US interventions in, say, Grenada and Panama. The Crimean invasion has exposed the sham of Russia's humanitarian interventionism. The only "humanitarian crisis" in Crimea was created by Putin and his fake "security forces".

Anti-fascist fascism: part 3

What better way to celebrate a new Anschluss than a nice round of book-burning?
Pro-Russian demonstrators in eastern Ukraine smashed their way into public buildings and burned Ukrainian-language books on Sunday in further protests following two deadly clashes in the region last week.
That'll show those fascists and their fascist language! Fancy pronouncing Russian "g" as an "h". Totally Hitlerian, I mean Gitlerian.

In next week's episode: it's Kristallnacht against those "Nazi" Crimean Tatars.

This morning's wildcard speculation

The referendum result and the request to join Russia were predictable, but what's the betting some overexcited sycophant in the "Crimean parliament" tables a motion to rename a hapless local town "Putingrad" in gratitude to his new master?

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Referendum results

The provisional figure is 95.5% in favour of union with Russia. That might go up overnight. I speculated yesterday: "Will Russia settle for something marginally realistic like 87% ... or will it go all out for a North Korean-style fantasy figure of 96% plus? I'm now inclined towards the latter." Well, Russia has indeed gone North Korean and it gives me no great pleasure to see that my estimate was pretty accurate, especially when Russian media figures like Dmitry Kiselev are now indulging in North Korean-style nuclear rhetoric and threatening to turn the US to powder.

Update: 96.77%. Wow.

Russia to move into eastern Ukraine?

At least according to Julia Ioffe  in New Republic. She says that Putin will need to do so for practical reasons, to ensure Crimea's energy and water supplies:
On Saturday, the two-week anniversary of the authorization, the Russian foreign ministry was already laying the foundations for such a seizure, saying that it was being flooded with requests from citizens across eastern Ukraine, asking the Russians for protection against the western Ukrainian fascists. 
But that’s just the pretext, not the reason. When Putin asked for and got his authorization, I wrote that, in predicting Russia’s actions these days, pessimism always wins. But, in this case, it isn’t just simple nastiness that’s going to drive this. For the first time in this manufactured crisis, Putin is going to be acting out of sheer pragmatism and necessity.
So let’s say the inevitable happens today and Crimea votes to enfold itself in the Russian Federation’s embrace. But what happens next? And what happens if, as is quite likely, Kiev cuts newly-Russian Crimea off from gas, electricity, and water, which Crimea has none of on its own? How will Moscow, the new owner, supply its latest acquisition with the necessities?
If you’re Russia, do you really want to ferry the necessities across the bay, or build an expensive bridge, or lay down expensive new pipelines? Wouldn’t you rather use pre-existing land routes (and pipelines)? Wouldn’t it just be easier to take the land just north and east of Perekop and the Swiss cheese area, now that you’ve already put in the effort to massively destabilize it? And while you’re there, wouldn’t you want to just take the entire Ukrainian east, the parts with the coal and the pipe-making plants and the industry? You know, since you already have permission?
Last night's rumoured clash between Russian and Ukrainian troops just outside Crimea's current borders might lend substance to these suspicions.

Putin and his friends might decide that, if they are going to take economic pain from Western sanctions anyway, they'll grab as much land as they can before the opposition are ready for them.

It's worth remembering the comments made after the 2008 South Ossetia War by Dmitry Rogozin*, now Russian deputy prime minister, then Russia's ambassador to NATO:
Everyone here [in Brussels] understands what we did, when we carried out such a large-scale operation and literally in three days not only shattered the Georgian army built on the money and under the leadership of the USA but stopped any opportunity for a third country to intervene quickly. This is not just a very serious military, psychological and moral victory for Russia – it is a gauntlet openly thrown down to the global leader of the modern world.
On the other hand, unlike Crimea, an invasion of eastern Ukraine would most likely be a bloodbath. So it's wait and see.

*As a diplomat Rogozin gained notoriety for his use of undiplomatic language. He is on Twitter  here. He doesn't comment much, but his latest tweet (made today) refers to Ukraine's ambassador to Moldova as a "son of a bitch".

My analysis so far

Russia has won Crimea, but lost Kyiv. Its actions have driven Ukraine further into the arms of the West. I doubt this will be acceptable to Putin. A successful, pro-Western Ukraine is possibly the biggest threat to his continued power in Russia. He will want to make Ukraine ungovernable at the very least. The 2008 war with Georgia went way beyond South Ossetia. Russian forces completely trashed Georgia's main port Poti as a way of humiliating President Saakashvili and his Western backers. Ukraine is even more of a personal issue for Putin and he may want more revenge on Kyiv.

Putin will now pump Crimea full of Russian money and Russian troops. He may try to bribe the Crimean Tatars into submission. He will try to make Crimea into a showcase to lure more regions of Ukraine into Russia's orbit. The prosperity and stability of Crimea (guaranteed by a heavy army presence) will be a contrast with the anarchy in eastern Ukraine (stirred up by Russian agents).

Putin will hope the example of Crimea will also bring the rest of Russia's "near abroad" into line, encouraging neighbouring states to join his Eurasian Union (Russia's parallel version of the EU) and Collective Security Treaty Organisation (a Russian calque of NATO).

Putin is riding high on a wave of nationalism, boosting his popularity in the short-term. He may use this short term to crack down on dissent, branding critics as unpatriotic. He can then introduce legislation limiting freedom of speech without provoking too much popular outrage. Unfortunately, once unleashed, nationalism is a difficult animal to control and it may force Putin to go further than he intended.

Russia's diplomatic relationship with the West is now severely damaged, probably irreparably. This is not Georgia 2008 – a conflict in a small, remote country that can be easily forgotten. This has been described as the worst crisis since the end of the Cold War. Obama and Kerry now look like they were duped by the "dishonest broker" Putin over Syria and his phoney talk of peace. They won't forgive him. Hilary Clinton has openly compared Putin to Hitler. Within the EU, the pro-Russian Angela Merkel is extremely unhappy that her Ostpolitik has gone west. Ex-Eastern Bloc countries like Poland and the Baltic States are saying that the credibility of NATO rests on its response to Ukraine. Western reaction may be stronger than anticipated. Russian diplomatic jugglery, such as pretending to be reasonable by offering concessions after taking Crimea, won't wash any more. So we're in for an economic staring contest with sanctions on both sides. Russia had better hope that its rhetoric about the namby-pamby, money-grubbing West is right and the West blinks first.

By abandoning its policy of non-intervention, Russia has probably lost its allure among non-Western regimes with poor human rights records. As a consistent non-interventionist, China is a much more attractive patron. Russia will now only appeal to the absolutely desperate, e.g. Syria and North Korea.

The unknown factor: Ukraine's response. The media have generally seen this crisis as Russia versus the West, ignoring the country at the centre of the debate. This is due to the incredible restraint Ukraine has shown over the past fortnight. The annexation of Crimea may test this restraint beyond endurance.


Saturday, 15 March 2014

Wilder speculation

At the moment everything is hanging in the air. The events of the next two days will really decide what happens in the next phase of the crisis. There aren't many grounds for optimism but here's some wild (or vapid) speculation. The main hope now is that the Crimean escapade damages the Russian economy so badly that it leads to Putin's downfall. I can come up with two scenarios where this might happen (they are not necessarily mutually exclusive):

1. The West imposes tough sanctions and squeezes the oligarchs until the pips squeak. As far as I remember, Putin's deal with the oligarchs was that if they stayed out of politics he'd stay out of their business dealings. Khodorkovsky violated this pact and was punished. However, Putin's politics are now likely to do significant harm to the oligarchs' business interests so they might consider the deal is off. They could react by removing him just as Nikita Khrushchev lost his power in 1964 as a result of his ill-advised adventurism (Cuban Missile Crisis, Virgin Lands Scheme). Yet, as we have seen, Russian energy and Russian sleaze has penetrated the economies of the EU so deeply that countries such as the UK and Germany may be very reluctant to squeeze the pips hard enough. I also have no idea whether, in practical terms, the oligarchs have the capability to get rid of Putin.

2. The Russian economy suffers and ordinary people's living standards go down. This inspires Orange/Maidan-style protests. Today, the opposition mobilised 30,000 anti-war protestors in a Moscow rally. But how much support does this movement have in wider Russia? At the moment, nationalistic fervour seems the order of the day among most Russians and Putin has tightened his grip on the media. If the economy tanks, though, he may face his worst nightmare: a popular revolt.

If Putin retains his grip on power, there will be a new Cold War. No Western country can ever trust him again after Crimea. The most pessimistic scenario is - it goes without saying - fratricidal bloodshed in Ukraine followed by a Russian invasion. We aren't there yet but so far the pessimists have outscored the optimists in their predictions.

Before the referendum

Russia has just lost the vote in the UN Security Council. As predicted, China abstained. China is probably unhappy that Russia has suddenly abandoned its long-standing support for non-intervention. Beijing certainly doesn't want foreign powers interfering in its imperial possessions Tibet and East Turkestan. Admittedly, Russia's behaviour has a certain consistency: non-intervention in Syria to protect its naval base there; intervention in Ukraine to protect its naval base there. Even if Putin had to create most of the need for "protection" in Ukraine.

The Crimea referendum will go ahead as planned, UN or no UN (of course, Russia has the sterling support of Syria and North Korea). And the result will be "yes". The only unknown quantity is what the percentage will be. Will Russia settle for something marginally realistic like 87% (assuming the Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians boycott the poll en masse) or will it go all out for a North Korean-style fantasy figure of 96% plus. I'm now inclined towards the latter. If Russia expects people to buy its barefaced lying about the presence of its ineptly disguised army in Crimea, then it is capable of putting out any propaganda it likes without a blush, however incredible it may seem.

The really grim question is whether, once it has Crimea in the bag, Russia will go on to carve out another chunk of east Ukraine.

Friday, 14 March 2014

More anti-fascist fascism

From the EU Observer:
The Russian government has invited some of Europe's far-right parties to observe this weekend's referendum in Crimea. 
The leader of France’s National Front party, Marine Le Pen, told press at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday (12 March) that her executive has not yet decided whether to go.  
The Austrian Freedom party, a National Front ally, also got an invitation.
No comment necessary.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Twitter feeds I've been following

Everything's relatively quiet at the moment, but the following English-language Twitter feeds have provided useful comments and links about the Ukraine crisis:

Ben Judah (British journalist, causing a stir with his attacks on "Londongrad")

Maxim Eristavi (local freelancer, travels around Ukraine)

Miriam Elder (Foreign Editor at Buzzfeed, Russian specialist)

Oliver Bullough (another British [?] journalist and Putin-sceptic)

Lawrence Freedman (Professor of War Studies, posts on Putin's strategy)

Darth Putin (fake Putin twitter feed, black comedy)

I'll add more later...

Monday, 10 March 2014

Anti-fascist fascism

Putin has a habit of demonstrating his anti-fascism in strikingly fascist ways. (Of course, when Putin talks of anti-fascism he is simply reheating Soviet rhetoric, e.g. the Berlin Wall was an "anti-fascist barrier").

As far as I’m aware, the anti-fascist smear campaign was first mobilised against Ukraine after the 2004 Orange Revolution panicked Putin into fearing similar protests might arise in Russia. To stop "the kidz" being perverted by such evil Orange ways, Putin had his minions create the Youth Democratic Anti-Fascist Movement, better known as "Nashi" (Ours). Nashi emerged from a previous experiment in adolescent management, Walking Together. In 2002 Walking Together had publicly destroyed copies of the Russian satirist Vladimir Sorokin's novel Blue Lard, throwing the torn-up books into a huge toilet erected outside the Bolshoi Theatre. This helped earn them the nickname "Putinjugend".

Putin’s own PR machine seems to have taken a couple of leaves from Mussolini’s book. Few politicians have shown such a penchant for being photographed topless (unless you count Cicciolina), with two notable exceptions:
In August 2007, the Kremlin’s official website featured a photograph of Putin fishing – topless – during a trip to the Republic of Tuva. Comparable images are extremely rare. Prior to this instance, photographs showing a country’s leading political figure naked from the waist up had appeared in the media on only two occasions: in 1937, Italy’s fascist government published a photo of a shirtless Mussolini; in 1966, the Chinese press released pictures showing Mao swimming in the Yangtze River as part of a campaign to show that the Chairman remained vigorous and capable of leading China. (Helena Goscilo Putin as Celebrity and Cultural Icon)
Another of Putin’s favourite publicity stunts is close encounters with big cats, most famously his (faked) run-in with a Siberian tiger . This is some old footage of a shirtless Mussolini playing with a toothless lion cub.

Sunday, 9 March 2014


Not much to report on so far today. The intimidation of foreign journalists ahead of the referendum in Crimea is escalating. By next weekend the vote will be as transparent as mud. The Cossacks and other irregulars (i.e. pro-Putin thugs) have developed a taste for beating opponents with whips. I first noticed this when they attacked Pussy Riot in Sochi last month. Is this deliberate neo-tsarist symbolism? Bring back the knout ?  Maybe they've been watching Battleship Potemkin for some tips on how their ancestors handled these things. Sevastopol Steps.

There's more historical symbolism in the rival protests in Simferopol (pic). The pro-Ukrainian side have gathered round a statue of Taras Shevchenko. The pro-Russian crowd's totem is the Lenin monument. A poet versus a dictator.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Putin's theatre of the absurd continues

I can't help the feeling Putin is trying to join the great East European tradition of absurdist theatre (Eugene Ionesco, Slawomir Mrozek, Vaclav Havel et al.). Denying the "self-defence forces" were Russian troops was a stroke of post-modern genius.

Now BBC News is reporting that Russian FM is claiming the Ukraine crisis was "created artificially for purely geopolitical reasons". Which is true, but not in the way he means.

Putin's theatre must be aimed at a purely domestic audience, like the Sochi Olympics (if he intended the games to improve Russia's international image then he's just flushed $50 billion down the drain). No one else around the world is buying the pretence. At the moment, only Assad of Syria has offered support. I presume even Pacific minnows like Nauru and Tuvalu will want to avoid the adverse publicity that would come with selling their UN votes to endorse something so brazen. A few states might confirm the results of the annexation referendum next weekend but I doubt it will be with any great enthusiasm. However, this is playing really well with Russian nationalism. It's like Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia (Putin is much closer to Mussolini than Hitler): the international condemnation is worth suffering because of the boost in domestic support.

(On the other hand, maybe Putin with his "KGB mentality" really does think the revolution in Kyiv was staged by Western intelligence agencies and this justfies him pulling the same trick in Crimea. It's just unfortunate for him that the Crimeans were so sluggish at following his script and he had to create his own "spontaneous uprising").

This weekend's links

(I'll probably continue to update this list as the weekend goes on)

Legal opinions

Opinio Juris blog post from Alexander Cooley, Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York ("A highly choreographed political theater between Simferopol and Moscow has crossed over into pantomime")

BBC News: Opinion page by Marc Weller, Professor of International Law at the University of Cambridge (Russia's Crimea move is illegal)


Channel 4 (UK) : footage of paramilitaries beating up journalists in Crimea

Belarus reaction

Earlier this morning I read an article in Belarus Digest: "Belarus Refuses to Support Russia's Invasion of Ukraine." It was available here, but this is now "Page Not Found". Computer glitch or political censorship? I have no idea.

Although Belarus is firmly within the Great Russian sphere of influence, Lukashenka has not always toed Moscow's line. He has never recognised the independence of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, for example.

On the other hand, Putin probably does not care unduly. Unlike Ukraine, with its dangerous Orange and Euromaidan revolutions, Belarus has never offered a threat to Putinism by providing a viable alternative political path. Quite the contrary. Belarus is the dystopian role model nobody in the rest of the former Soviet Union wants to follow.

Still, it's worth keeping an eye on the reactions of Belarus and Kazakhstan - both countries with large ethnic Russian populations and no NATO membership.

The situation on Saturday

Putin probably has Crimea in the bag, at least politically. On March 16 there will be a referendum which will almost certainly vote in favour of union with Russia.

The tricky part for Putin will be removing the Ukrainian forces still in Crimea. It is unlikely Kyiv will accept Russian annexation. So far, the Ukrainian soldiers under siege have shown admirable restraint and have not responded with violence to the provocations by the militias and "self-defence forces". Ukraine has learned the lesson of the 2008 South Ossetia War when Georgia's armed forces gave Putin the excuse to take military action and drive them out of the region.

Putin will gradually build up the Russian military presence in Crimea in the hope the Ukrainians will back down in the face of overwhelming odds (last time I looked there were already supposed to be 20,000 Russian soldiers in the peninsula). Last night, a small band of Russian troops tested Ukrainian resolve and attempted to take over a base. They failed, but we can probably expect more such experiments over the coming days (or, more likely, nights).

If the Ukrainians still hold their bases after the annexation referendum passes, Putin can declare they are now the real "occupying forces". He may allow them an honourable way out by letting them leave with their weapons. Or he may push for unconditional surrender. It depends on how much he wants to humiliate Kyiv for its insubordination to the Great Russian World Order.

However, the real wild card - and the biggest danger - in the Crimea at the moment is not the Ukrainian and Russian regular soldiers but the pro-Russian militias. They are there to give the Crimean coup the appearance of a popular uprising. They are also useful for beating up journalists and pro-Ukrainian protesters as well as threatening potential outside monitors such as the UN and the OSCE. They will ensure that the referendum avoids detailed international scrutiny.

Some of the militiamen are locals, but many have obviously been brought in from Russia and elsewhere. There are supposed to be Russian Cossacks and Serbian "Chetniks" present, for example. I remember reading in Thomas de Waal's book The Caucasus: An Introduction, which covers the wars in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh, that the worst atrocities were carried out by such "tourist" irregulars. Local people were at least aware that they would have to live with their neighbours after the conflict was over. The danger came from outside volunteers bussed in to join the fighting - young men pumped up with nationalist sentiment, with little training or discipline and no sense of responsibility. Basically, football hooligans with Kalashnikovs. For example, in Nagorno-Karabakh the Khojali Massacre of 1992 was blamed on the undisciplined behaviour of the "Arabo" and "Aramo" Armenian paramilitary units. It's also worth investigating the biography of Shamil Basayev, who began his guerrilla career as part of the Russian-backed "Abkhazia Brigade" and ended it as Moscow's Number One Chechen terrorist leader.

Putin may think he has these militiamen under the thumb of the regular - if badly disguised - Russian army. But they have a way of making their own rules and a brutal talent for aggravating ethnic conflict. So far, there has been thuggery but no deaths in Crimea. This could change with the click of a trigger.

Friday, 7 March 2014

More links

On "Londongrad" and British weakness on sanctions

Ben Judah on "London's Laundry List" (NYT)

Michael Weiss on "Britain's KGB Sugar Daddy"

Michael Bullough: British Officials Oppose Sanctions Because Russia's Elite Are London's Cash Cows

In other developments

Sweden may move towards NATO membership as a result of the Ukraine crisis (WSJ)

Estonia and Finland to build new natural gas terminals ("If the project is carried out, it is expected to end both Finnish and Estonian dependence on Russian gas entirely...")


Buzzfeed round-up of how the other ex-USSR countries have reacted to the crisis

Thomas de Waal on the difference between Crimea and South Ossetia

Interesting article in Politico by Thomas de Waal, author of books on the Caucasus and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He starts by making the same point as the Russian Dilettante, tracing the parallels between the current crisis and Vassily Aksyonov's 1981 novel The Island of Crimea.

De Waal then compares and contrasts the situation in Crimea and South Ossetia:

In August 2008, South Ossetians’ fears vis-à-vis Tbilisi seemed to be borne out when President Mikheil Saakashvili foolishly ordered his troops to capture the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali. That of course was exactly the pretext Russia needed to stage an invasion.

In Crimea, there are no excuses. There has been no provocation, no shooting. Russians already ran a local parliament with autonomous powers. Russian is the main language of communication. 
The dangers are also bigger. Crimea has a substantial population still on the ground that does not want to be part of Russia or merely more autonomy within Ukraine. There are maybe half a million Ukrainians, out of a total population of 2.4 million people, with loyalty to Kyiv. There are also 250,000 Crimean Tatars, whose resentment of Moscow runs deep after Stalin’s mass deportation of them to Central Asia in 1944. They are not only loyal to Ukraine but can call on support from a strong diaspora community in Turkey.

Thankfully there is no recent tradition of political violence in Crimea. But there is pervasive organized crime, which could end up being just as dangerous. Over the last week observers have reported seeing freelance security personnel, working for oligarchs, alongside regular troops outside Ukrainian bases in what one Western analyst has described as Russian “state-private sector synergy. These unstable local dynamics could give some home-grown bosses a lot more leverage than we would want to see in an international crisis zone.
De Waal concludes that there could be a mini civil war between Russians, Ukrainians and Tatars in the Crimea. In other words, Russia may soon acquire its own version of Ulster.


"You may say I'm a dreamer...": the "Imagine" test

Funny, only last night I was thinking there are few more reliable ways of assessing a politician's dubiousness than to ask them their favourite song. If the answer is John Lennon's "Imagine", then you know you're dealing with a 24-carat stinker.*

The example that prompted my musings was the British political "maverick" George Galloway, Respect MP and Russia Today regular.** His autobiography is entitled I'm Not the Only One. Apart from Lennon, Galloway's other heroes include JFK and Fidel Castro. This reveals his profound grasp of history.

It turns out that Viktor Yanukovych was another big "Imagine" fan, so much so that he bought a replica of the piano from the famous video as this Youtube footage demonstrates. He even had "You May Say I'm A Dreamer" inscribed on the lid.

*This only applies to "Imagine", not the rest of Lennon's or the Beatles' back catalogue. A politician  saying they like "Cold Turkey" is fine. Highly unlikely, but fine.
**Needless to say, being an RT regular is an even more reliable indicator than the "Imagine" test.

(Youtube link found via Oleksandr Akymenko on Twitter)

Soft power

The European Union has been using its soft power to woo Ukraine away from Moscow by offering a more attractive alternative vision of the future. Why be Russia when you could be Poland?

Unfortunately, Russia has soft power of its own. Over the past decade it has exported so much of its sleaze to Western European financial sectors that it now has a large say in deciding  EU foreign policy.

In its handling of the crisis the EU has demonstrated its power is very soft indeed. On the plus side, this undermines Putin's "anti-fascist" rhetoric warning of an imminent Fourth Reich on Russia's doorstep. The panzers are hardly going to be rolling eastwards when German bankers are distraught at the idea of delivering Putin the mildest slap on the wrist.

Comments open

I'm struggling to get a hang of things after so many blogless years. I think I've now managed to open the comments section. We'll see how this goes. A reminder to potential spammers: sorry, but opinions on the merits of Monsieur Vuitton's wares are unwelcome.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

How long has Russia been planning its Crimea intervention

How long has Russia been planning its Crimea intervention. An article from UK Channel 4 on eerily accurate prophecies:

Back in 2010 British-born Ukraine expert Taras Kuzio warned that the region could be "Europe's next flashpoint", and suggested a number of scenarios that Russia could use to engineer a takeover. 
One of them - "sending security forces and Black Sea fleet personnel camouflaged as local paramilitaries to occupy Sevastopol in an overnight operation" - describes almost exactly what is thought to have happened last week. 
As long ago as 2008, shortly after Russia and Georgia clashed in the South Ossetia war, the US academic Leon Aron warned that "Russia's next target could be Ukraine".
Mr Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, also thought the flashpoint would be the City of Sevastopol, home of Russia's Black Sea fleet and a large ethnic Russian majority. 
"An early morning operation in which the Ukrainian mayor and officials are deposed and arrested and the Russian flag hoisted over the city should not be especially hard to accomplish," he wrote. 
"Once established, Russian sovereignty over Sevastopol would be impossible to reverse without a large-scale war, which Ukraine will be most reluctant to initiate and its Western supporters would strongly discourage."
Back in 2007-2008, during what journalist Ben Judah calls the "Short Cold War", Russia was bullying Ukraine with gas cut-offs to stop it moving closer to NATO. Georgia received far harsher treatment (partly because it was smaller, partly because Saakashvili gave Putin the opportunity). Now it's Ukraine's turn. Back then, Putin was also dividing Europe by courting Germany and Italy (unfortunately, Vladimir has since lost his soulmate Berlusconi).

Dr Kuzio says the new leaders of Ukraine have "played their hand really well" by refusing to be provoked into a "hot war". There are "more differences than similarities" with the South Ossetia crisis, where Georgia gave Russia an excuse to retaliate, he said. 
He believes that the lack of widespread unrest in Crimea, and the relatively muted response from separatists to the arrival of Russian troops, may have taken Mr Putin by surprise. 
Others echo the view that Mr Putin has had to react opportunistically to changing events. In a recent article, Dr Aron says Moscow has been "gradually escalating the pressure on Ukraine, seeing what works and what does not, pausing and looking over his shoulder at the response from the west".
Which tallies with what I've been saying.

How Crimea differs from South Ossetia and Abkhazia


In South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia at least had the excuse that there had been vicious ethnic warfare, making Russian intervention on "humanitarian" grounds more plausible. (Of course, Putin's main motivation for the 2008 South Ossetia War was to punish Georgia for drawing close to NATO).

Putin probably hoped that violence would break out in Ukraine between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions, giving an excuse for the Russian army to intervene to preserve "stability" and the human rights of ethnic Russians. Unfortunately, not enough real anarchy ensued and so Putin was forced to manufacture a crisis using fake "self-defence forces" and a puppet Crimean leader, Aksyonov.

The fate of the autonomous republics

South Ossetia and Abkhazia currently exist in a legal limbo, recognised only by Russia and a handful of other states.

As far as I can gather, Abkhazia would rather be an independent state in its own right. Being de facto part of Russia is no more than second-best; the fear of a return to Georgian rule is what drives it to prefer Moscow.

South Ossetia really would like to become part of the Russian Federation and join up with its kinsmen and women in the Russian Republic of North Ossetia-Alania on the other side of the Caucasus. Nevertheless, Russia is unlikely to give this the go-ahead for fear of angering the other, already restive republics of the North Caucasus. These republics are predominantly Muslim and favouring the Christian Ossetians (as the Russian Empire did historically) would fuel resentment. Such friction led to a war between North Ossetia and neighbouring Ingushetia (the Prigorodny Conflict) in 1992. Adding South Ossetia would further unbalance an already unbalanced region which Russia struggles to control. The expense of "feeding more Caucasians" might also be unpopular with Russian nationalists.

Crimea is different. Until 1954, it was even part of Russia proper. It has a majority of real, ethnic Russians, not Caucasians who have been Russianised by handing out passports. Therefore it is possible Crimea will be the first neighbouring region that Russia fully absorbs into itself. However, we are not there yet. So far, the Ukrainians have been remarkably restrained, but a shooting war might still break out leading to a fratricidal conflict between East Slavs. The move will also be opposed worldwide, barring a few Russian allies like Syria and a handful of tinpot states like Tuvalu and Nauru who are willing to prostitute their UN votes for Russian money. It will inspire fear in neighbouring states with large ethnic Russian populations (Latvia and Estonia will be glad they have joined NATO). China's reaction is difficult to gauge. In recent years, China and Russia have stood shoulder to shoulder in many UN Security Council votes, but this has mainly been because they have both taken a line in favour of non-intervention in other states. Russia has now broken rank, so China may stay neutral. There is also the issue of the Crimean Tatars - and I might look into that at a later date.

Putin's first use of the Crimea technique

Intervening in the autonomous (or semi-autonomous) regions of neighbouring states has been Putin's way of trying to control Russia's "near abroad" from the beginning of his rule. It wasn't a technique he invented as Russia had already been involved militarily in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdniestria in the early 1990s. However, some observers believe back in those days the Kremlin may not have had a coherent policy and was simply responding to events in an ad hoc way. This would explain the somewhat confused handling of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war (1988-1994) in which Russian soldiers fought on both sides.

Putin inherited a situation in which Russian "peacekeepers" were effectively in control of the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In December 2000 Putin used this state of affairs as an instrument for punishing the then Georgian president Edvard Shevardnadze. Putin was angry that Georgia's Pankisi Gorge was being used as a refuge by Chechen fighters during the Second Chechen War which Putin had just started. When Shevardnadze responded that Georgia was incapable of policing the gorge, Putin imposed visa restrictions on Georgians, while issuing Russian passports to Abkhazians and South Ossetians and allowing the free flow of goods between those regions and Russia.

(I may add more detail to this post tomorrow. Putin's actions provoked a series of events which led to Georgia drawing closer to NATO.)


My guess is that Putin has "budgeted" two months for this crisis, although he probably expects it to be over before then. Two months is the length of time the leading Russian dissident blogger Alexei Navalny has just been sentenced to house arrest with no Internet access. Perhaps more importantly, Putin needed to steal a march on the new Ukrainian interim government, who announced elections for the end of May. Until then Putin can claim the Kyiv government is "illegitimate" and refuse to recognise any of its actions.

The story so far...

My comments from the past few days (from here):

March 3

My guess is the Russians are still trying to starve out the few remaining Ukrainian military bases before they send in the heavy stuff and the soldiers wearing Russian insignia. Then they can have a nice victory parade without the embarrassment of body bags coming home. Putin is still hoping to take the Crimea bloodlessly. At the moment there’s too much of a chance of a shooting match between the remaining Ukrainian soldiers and the “unidentified gunmen” besieging them. Once the Ukrainian army in Crimea has been neutralised, the official Russian military will move in, there will be a referendum at the end of the month with probably a 90% (i.e. rigged to make doubly sure) vote in favour of independence (or union with Russia, although that’s a riskier option diplomatically). Crimea will then exist in the same kind of international legal limbo as South Ossetia. If it votes for “independence”, then Russia will recognise it as well as a few places Putin has bribed such as Nicaragua and Nauru. That’s if things go to schedule…

March 6 (i.e. earlier today)

So it looks like the Ukrainian soldiers and sailors in Crimea haven’t followed the plan and surrendered. They are also unlikely to be starved out before the end of the month. So Putin has had his puppet regime in Crimea speed up the annexation schedule. After the “union with Russia”, they can then declare that the Ukrainian military still in Crimea are the real “occupying force”.


I've set up this blog to make a few observations on the continuing crisis in Ukraine. These developed out of comments I posted at the Russian Dilettante's Winterings under the name JCass.  Somehow I've ended up with yet another pseudonym for this blog, Terry Lennox (a pseudonymous character in Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye). No matter. It's been ten years since I last blogged about politics and many of my opinions have changed since then. I'm not sure I want to return to blogging full-time, but we'll see.