The deteriorating situation in Ukraine has finally eclipsed into the military seizure of the Crimean Peninsula by Russian forces. Various reports suggest at least 6,000 Spetsnaz have also been deployed to Crimea in the past few days, in addition to unconfirmed numbers of Russian regulars in support of what the Putin government is alleging is a quasi-peacekeeping/defense-of-citizens role in the Peninsula.
The Russian takeover of the Peninsula highlights a major geopolitical power play for Russia, and also further solidifies Putin’s ability to usurp the combined powers of Ukrainian sovereignty, the European Union, NATO, and even the US.
(Update 2 March: it is reported a Russian convoy carrying several hundred troops is moving on the regional capital of Crimea, and that the Ukrainian military has been fully mobilized. Live updates on the situation can be viewed here.)
According to various reporting, this takeover began when the “Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement alleging that a group of unidentified armed men from Kiev attempted to seize the Interior Ministry building…in response…[forcing] an appeal from the chairman of the Council of Ministers of Crimea to Vladimir Putin for assistance in ‘ensuring peace and tranquility’ in Crimea.” What does this mean? Putin’s role as genial Olympics host is over, and the EU, NATO, US, and people of Ukraine had better take notice.
The Putin government cares about Ukraine and the Crimea because it is geopolitically critical to Russian interests, specifically when it comes to influencing and shaping Russia’s control over Europe’s energy sector, regional security , and strategic military positioning. These geopolitical factors influencing Russian decision-making will prove very difficult for various European, NATO, or US-backed efforts to successfully counter, based on the level of influence Russia holds in the region.
Geopolitics at Work
For starters, Russia controls over half of Ukraine’s natural gas pipelines, and is able to regulate the natural gas supply from Russia into Ukraine as it sees fit. These are the same pipelines that provide natural gas to multiple European countries as well, a fact that is far from lost on Putin, who has “twice curtailed supplies in disputes over politics, price, and late payments…cuts that rattled countries across Europe that depend on the Russian pipelines.”
This critical interest is one that further highlights the absolute imperative of Russian dominance in the Ukraine. Russian control over the natural gas and its pipelines that feed Europe provide Putin with major political and economical leverage over the European community, thereby solidifying Russia’s position as a still-relevant global economic and political power on the world stage.
In addition to economic and political leverage from influencing natural gas supply, Russia has a vested interest in maintaining close ties and influence in Ukraine and the Crimea in pursuit of regional security. According to experts, Ukraine is “central to Russia’s defensibility. The two countries share a long border, and Moscow is located only some 480 kilometers (about 300 miles) from Ukrainian territory–a stretch of land that is flat, easily traversed, and thus difficult to defend. If some power were to block the Ukraine-Kazakh gap, Russia would be cut off from the Caucasus, its defensible southern border.”
By exercising close control throughout the Crimea and a good portion of Ukraine, Russia is able to shape and influence enough control to further solidify its regional security, which has been tested numerous times over the years.
An additional consideration for Russia’s control in the Crimea and Ukraine is the strategic military positioning of its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. The Black Sea Fleet provides Russia with an obvious military capability but also a major presence and action arm for Russian power projection in the Black Sea and Mediterranean.
According to recent reporting, Russia also maintains 26,000 troops in Sevastopol, and has sent a large landing ship with additional special operations troops there within the past few days. There are also unconfirmed reports of “unofficial security personnel deployed to airports in Simferopol and Sevastopol, as well as border checkpoints near mainland Ukraine that appear to be loyal to Moscow but not official Russian troops.”
While the initial Russian invasion of the Crimea may have come as a surprise to many, the geopolitical factors that highlight Ukraine’s importance to Russia as well as Russia’s clearly stated redlines and historical influence in the Peninsula should have alleviated any major shock. According to experts at Stratfor, “Crimea has long been firmly within Russia’s sphere of influence, with more than 60 percent of the republic is populated by ethnic Russians.”
In order to solidify its influence in light of military action in Crimea, Russian lawmakers have proposed legislation offering “passports and a fast-track [to] Russian citizenship to Crimean residents.” This is an offer similar to one “extended to [residents] shortly before the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.” This legislation would further justify the legality of using Russian military forces in Crimea to protect Russian citizens and interests.
This power play by Putin is very reminiscent of previous Russian military displays, as evidenced in Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, which was also preceded by multiple military exercises in the Caucasus prior to the invasion. Prior to invading the Peninsula, Russia mobilized an impressive military force in support of a “snap exercise”. ”Some 150,000 troops, 90 aircraft, 880 tanks, 1,200 pieces of military hardware and more than 120 helicopters participated in the exercises, which involve operations along Russia’s western borders, including those with Ukraine.” Naturally, the Russian Defense Minister stated that the drills were in no way, shape, or form related to the events in Ukraine. He must have been referring to the other Ukraine.
The Rocky Road Ahead
While many have expressed disapproval over Putin’s power play invasion, it is unlikely enough of a cohesive or effective response will be mounted from the US, NATO, EU, or Ukraine. From a military standpoint, external involvement from any third parties in an attempt to reclaim the Crimea from Russia would spark a world war, and is out of the question. However, recent assessments by the Ukrainian national security council of Ukrainian military capabilities have realized how ill-equipped their forces are to face Russia head-on, so a Ukrainian-Russian military option is unlikely as well.
Based on these limited military options, matters of politics and economics will most likely prove the most effective influencers leveraged to obtain as much of a mutually beneficial solution as realistically possible. With Ukraine being influenced by both Eastern and Western powers, it remains to be seen how beneficial such an option will prove for the West, who is already one step behind Putin.
Thanks for listening.