The Corner

Clausewitz and The Crimea

Over at In Moscow’s Shadows, Mark Galeotti tries to deconstruct Putin’s game plan:

Russia already has what it needs in the Crimea and there has been no evidence yet that the new government in Kyiv would challenge that. Annexing Crimea means that it can no longer use the peninsula as a political and economic agent inside Ukraine, and mean that Moscow takes on responsibility for the massive subsidies that keep it afloat. And, of course, dealing with the substantial ethnic Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar minorities who would be unlikely to take kindly to this development. It also makes this much more clearly a question of Ukrainian state sovereignty and would stiffen resolve in the country and ensure greater international support for Kyiv. Russia often doesn’t mind being the bad guy, but it doesn’t court that status wilfully…

So what does Galeotti think happens now?

My view, and at this stage it can be no more than a guess, is that having given up on Yanukovych (they have to look after him, to convince other kleptocrats that Russia is a reliable friend, but they clearly are treating him as an former president, not a visiting head of state), [the Russians] instead are fixing on making sure that Kyiv understands that it needs to consider Russian interests and on helping the eastern regions and Crimea win even greater autonomy for themselves within Ukraine. That way, the pretty dirty, Russia-leaning local elites in these regions can be Moscow’s agents and allies inside Ukraine, spoilers if need be, but Russia still has access to Ukraine’s markets and if need be can always use trade boycotts and the energy supply as further levers.

This is hard-nosed and heavy-handed geopolitics, born of Putin’s determination to maintain Russian hegemony in post-Soviet Eurasia and his belief that Ukraine is not a “real” country, but it’s not the realm of invasions and annexations. It’s a Clausewitzian use of if not war but certainly military force as a continuation of politics.

That sounds convincing to me. Galeotti slips in the caveat that his views are based on the assumption that Putin is acting rationally, but makes it clear that he believes that the Russian president is doing just that. I’d agree.

Events, however, have a momentum of their own. Galeotti’s opinion, written, presumably, before today’s vote in the Russian parliament, is that Russia is not about to annex the Crimea or, for that matter, a slice of eastern Ukraine. Again, that’s probably true, but, as Galeotti also writes, “Putin is a great fan of quickly and pre-emptively establishing the “ground truth” such that others have to accept or at least negotiate on that basis”.

If those ground truths then change, does that take Putin closer to permitting a Crimean Transdneister or, maybe, pushing for Bosnian-style federalism for Ukraine, which would see the creation of an ethnic Russian equivalent of Bosnia’s (ethnic Serbian) Republika Srpska within its borders?

Interesting times, as someone once said. 

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