Sunday, 16 March 2014

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.


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