Ukraine has lately been home to a great deal of violence, unrest, and general carrying on. So when Russia announced on Wednesday that it would be having an impromptu military exercise right next door, many people in Ukraine — and everywhere else — got more than a little worried.
The exercises are big ones, even for Russia. They involve some 150,000 troops, 90 aircraft, 880 tanks, and 1,200 other bits of military hardware from Russia’s Western Military District. The readiness exercises will include Russia’s 2nd Army, the aerospace defense service, airborne troops, and long-range military transport aircraft. Moscow swears this has nothing whatsoever to do with the recent unrest in Ukraine, and Moscow totally rejects the insinuation that it is considering even the teeniest of interventions in Ukraine. Really. And especially not in the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Promise.
Following months of escalating chaos that led to dozens of deaths and hundreds of wounded, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich has been ousted and is reportedly hiding out in Russia. His estate has been stormed — his liquor cabinet emptied, his porn stash raided, and his galleon-shaped restaurant mocked. His regime’s collapse has brought instability to much of Ukraine, including to Crimea, a peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea connected to Ukraine by a tiny sliver of land. It’s a strange critter that has been — and continues to be — very important to Russia for a host of economic, military, and psychological reasons. Not least among them is the existence of the excellent harbor at Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
The harbor doesn't seem all that excellent at first blush. Ships based there have to go through the very tiny Bosporus Strait just to get to the Mediterranean Sea. From there they have to go through either the Straits of Gibraltar or the Suez Canal to finally reach the open ocean. Still, for Russia this is a really big deal — at least, it is in February. The Russians have been after a port that won’t freeze solid in the winter for literally hundreds of years. Sevastopol might not be easily accessibly from … well, much of anywhere, but it’s the best they’ve got.
Crimea is actually majority Russian. Russian ties there go back at least to 1783, when the Tsars, intent on getting their hands on a warm-water port, obtained Crimea through a simple barter transaction: They gave the Crimean Khanate a vicious beat down, and then they took Crimea. Khrushchev did Ukraine a solid in 1954 by giving it Crimea, but the area has a quasi-autonomous status in Ukraine while maintaining very strong ties to Russia.
So when the Euromaidan protests spread to Crimea, outside observers began to wonder how Russia would respond. When Russia seemingly decided to respond by holding a huge military readiness exercise right next door, many analysts came to the entirely reasonable conclusion that Russia was going to move in and conquer the hell out of Crimea, returning it to Mother Russia’s sweet embrace.
Portesters in Sevastapol's Nakhimov Square
Not so fast, says William Varettoni. He's a former Foreign Affairs Analyst at the US Department of State and current University of Maryland PhD candidate in Being Really Smart About Ukraine. Three years ago, Varettoni essentially predicted the current Crimean unrest in an article on Crimea’s Overlooked Instability.
He argues that Crimea is and always has been far more unstable than the not-paying-any-attention-to-Crimea community realizes. Further, he makes the case that while Russia has a great deal of interest in Crimea, it has no desire to go in with tanks and smash things up, because Russia likes it just fine the way it is.
Despite the fact that the Ukrainian flag flaps overhead in Crimea — well, until gunmen there took over government buildings Thursday and raised the Russian flag — the region is basically a little slice of Russia. It’s majority Russian. TV is broadcast in Russian. Ads are in Russian. Russian businessmen routinely visit and get involved in complex, possibly illegal financial transactions. And so Russia has been able to maintain its hold over Crimea through a sustained, subtle, and sophisticated soft power campaign.
So there's not a whole lot of reason for Putin to take drastic measures, especially ones that could trigger a full-fledged insurrection right on his border, next to a major naval base. Besides, if Russia just flat-out invades the place, there will be a whole host of diplomatic hell to pay. Outright invasion runs the risk of Ukrainians taking up arms to defend their country. Plus, even the ethnic Russians in Crimea get a far better deal being governed by the comparatively lax Ukrainian laws than they would under direct Russian rule. Putin pretty much has a zero-tolerance approach to citizens raising a fuss, and he pretty much lets heavyweight Russian oligarchs do whatever they want.
Some would point to the Russia-Georgia War of 2008 as evidence that Russian invasion is imminent, but there are some important distinctions worth remembering. Among them is the fact that there are deep sentimental and psychological ties between Ukraine and Russia. In contrast, Moscow gives precious few shits about Georgians and how they feel.
However, if Moscow has a burning desire to invade, they may very well do so with peacekeepers. “Convincing groups of young men to do something stupid isn’t that difficult,” Varettoni told VICE News. With a bit of prodding, Moscow could easily turn up the temperature of protests in Crimea, and then use that to justify sending in Russian troops to restore order and preserve the peace. By making the right noises about things like protecting minority rights, Russia could control the narrative quite effectively. This option has some appeal longterm, since it would make Crimea even more autonomous than it is now. That would make it even more difficult for Ukraine to achieve any kind of consensus on foreign policy, which in turn would make it harder for the country to move away from Russia and toward Europe.
Alternately, Russia could set up Crimea as a frozen territory. Frozen territories crop up when someone calls "Time out!" in the middle of civil war or secessionist movement. Freezing the conflict locks the lines of control wherever they happen to be at the time. This often results in the creation of something that’s not quite a legitimate country that exists under the sufferance of it’s more powerful patron. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is an example of a frozen territory; recognized as a legitimate country only by Turkey, it is considered by the UN to be an occupied territory. More recent examples include the Republic of Abkhazia and Republic of South Ossetia, both of which were created in — you guessed it — the 2008 Russia-Georgia war.
So maybe the sudden military exercises are just a prelude to the Crimean edition of Extreme Peacekeeping. Or maybe they don’t amount to much. Last year, Russia held six surprise readiness exercises. The largest, held last July, involved 160,000 troops, about 1,000 tanks, 130 aircraft, and 70 warships.
Military exercises can serve a number of roles. Certainly these exercises will put the new powers-that-be in Ukraine on notice. But ultimately, Russia’s goal may simply be to leave its options open, and to let the rest of the world know that its options are open.
Much like taking a gun out of its holster and flicking off the safety.