Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Putin is substantially right but strategically wrong

Putin is becoming Russia's problem.  The West must be rubbing their hands with satisfaction at the way Putin has shot himself in the foot with his handling of the Crimea problem.

Putin is substantially right in his claim that Russia cannot accept that Crimea, where Russia has strategic interests and which historically was always Russian territory, falls under the control of a pro-West Kiev government that brings NATO right on Russia's doorstep. 

Unfortunately for Putin, even when he is substantially in the right he makes horrendous strategic mistakes which in the long term jeopardises the prospects of realisation of  his dream to restore to Russia the super-power status it once had.   Pity he is rendering Russia as a pariah rather than a reliable partner.

The following facts, which are beyond contention, explain why Putin is substantially right to manoeuvre for Crimea to become Russian territory:

  • Annexation with Russia  is what the vast majority of Crimeans want.
  • Crimea is historically part of Russia and was partitioned to Ukraine in 1954 when both Russia and Ukraine formed part of the Soviet Union - USSR.
  • Russia has strategic interest in Crimea which hosts Russian strategic military assets.
  • Russia, though not the super power it once was is still a formidable military force and strategically cannot accept the risk of NATO becoming in control of Crimea if Ukraine moves west and joins NATO (as many other countries under Moscow's influence during the cold war have done)
  • Russia strategically needs a buffer between its borders and NATO countries.
  • Russia has good reason to feel betrayed when the agreement signed by the Ukraine President Yanukovich and the representatives of the Kiev Maidan protesters, negotiated with 3 EU foreign ministers and a representative of the Kremlin, was undone as soon as it was signed and a new non- elected government took over whilst elections agreed for December 2014 were brought forward to May 2014.
These are valid reasons to explain that there is substance in Putin's decision to re-annex Crimea to the Russian Federation.    This extreme move gained further justification by commitments given by Putin, that Russia will respect the rights of minorities in Crimea and will allow Ukrainian and Tartar as official languages alongside Russian in Crimea. 

But at the same time the decision while substantially justified, is strategically wrong for these reasons:

  • The method used smacks of occupation which establishes dangerous precedents which are a risk to Russia itself for safeguarding its territorial integrity when many of its eastern regions in the Caucuses have cessation ambitions.
  • In 2014 the international community cannot accept such crass methods of territorial grabs.
  • Russia could have achieved total control of Crimea through diplomacy.
  • For safeguarding and guaranteeing  the integrity of the remaining Ukrainian territory Russia could have extracted guarantees from Ukraine that it will not join NATO or offer strategic military facilities or rights to NATO. 
  • Russia could be forced to pay a high economic price for its undiplomatic liberties when its economy is still very weak and overly dependent on energy exports.
  • USA and the west will be forced to open an economic strategy to reduce reliance on energy imports from Russia which in the long term could cripple the Russian economy.
The problem with Putin is that at heart he remains a KGB man, someone the west cannot trust and cannot do business with in reciprocal confidence.   This event marks his clear preference for using force rather than diplomacy.  He has denied himself acceptance and respect as a true world leader willing to play by the rules rather than by use of force.

In the end with China moving ahead on all fronts to acquire super-power status,  Putin should realise that Russia's long term interests do not lie in fighting the West but in making Russia as an integral and influential part of the West as with the world economic centre of gravity moving eastwards, Russia cannot stay in the middle.

Imagine a different scenario.   Imagine a situation where Russia respects existent sovereign borders but uses diplomatic channels to demand respect for Russia's military interests in Crimea and protection of the rights of Russian minorities in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.   Imagine a scenario where Russia displays its military power within the confines of its territorial limits to strengthen its diplomatic demands.

Within such strategic positioning Russia would have, rather than diplomatically isolating itself, found support from core European countries, especially those countries that rely on its energy supplies, for a peaceful solution.   This would have restored Crimea as Russian territory against a multilateral guarantee for the territorial integrity for the rest of Ukraine.  Ukraine would have given a commitment not to join NATO, and assurances to give sufficient autonomy and respect to its Eastern regions where Russian ethnics form a majority.  The mildness of the sanctions imposed for the annexation of Crimea bear witness to the possibility of such diplomatic solution.

Such a behaviour would have persuaded the West of Russia’s commitment to play by the rules while defending its strategic interests.  It would have gained for Russia diplomatic respect and economic stability attracting foreign investment so necessary for the development of its economy.   However by choosing the undiplomatic military route to force its right Putin has rendered himself an unreliable partner that cannot be trusted that his ambitions truly stop with Crimea.  Unavoidably the west will be forced to isolate Russia diplomatically and economically until it crumbles just like the USSR did.   The West cannot risk another Munich moment as with Hitler in 1938.

Putin is still in time to work back his ambitions through diplomatic channels but only if he shows in deed not just words his commitment to respect Ukraine territorial integrity while demanding full respect for rights of  Russia and  Russian ethnic minorites.