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The Crimean War Redux

An armed man in military uniform, believed to be Russian, stands outside Ukraine's naval headquarters in Sevastopol. Inside, Ukrainian troops guard the base.

An armed man in military uniform, believed to be Russian, stands outside Ukraine's naval headquarters in Sevastopol. Inside, Ukrainian troops guard the base.

The last time Russia and the West clashed over Crimea, one of Vladimir Putin's heroes, Tsar Nicholas I, was in power. And it didn't end well.

If past is prologue, Putin should be more than a little nervous about the adventure he is now launching.

The 1853-56 Crimean War, which Russia ostensibly launched to protect the rights of Orthodox Christians on the Black Sea peninsula (sound familiar?), ended with its military soundly routed by an alliance of Great Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire.

In the aftermath, Russia was temporarily barred from having warships on the Black Sea. It lost the territories of Moldavia and Wallachia. And it was in so much debt that it was forced to sell Alaska -- to the United States -- for a song.

Losing the Crimean War, while humiliating, also led Russia to launch a wave of reforms under Nicholas I's successor, Tsar Aleksandr II, including the abolition of serfdom, judicial reform, and a new system of local self-government.

History, of course, doesn't repeat itself. It doesn't even always rhyme. And a direct military conflict with the West is, to put it mildly, highly unlikely. (And a new wave of reform, even more so.)

But with the ruble tumbling to record lows and Russian shares falling, Putin's decision to flex Moscow's military muscle on the Black Sea peninsula, and implicitly threaten to invade the rest of Ukraine, has already proven costly. The MICEX fell by 11.3 percent, wiping nearly $60 billion off the value of Russian companies in a day and the Russian Central Bank spent $10 billion of its reserves to prop up the currency.

And it will get costlier still. In Prague two government ministers said this week, for example, that Russia's Atomstroieksport should not be allowed to bid for a $10 billion contract to expand the Czech Republic's main nuclear power plant. And although the Czech prime minister later walked back the comments, the issue of Russia's participation in the tender will become increasingly contentious.

We should expect more of this kind of thing, which will disrupt Moscow's carefully orchestrated business strategy in Eastern Europe, as the crisis drags on.

Putin appears to be counting on a scenario similar to its August 2008 war with Georgia, which caused Western protests and hand wringing -- but little resistance and no real consequences for Russia -- and ended with Moscow firmly in control of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

"Yet a war in Ukraine would be potentially catastrophic for Russia and Putin, in a way that invading Georgia could never have been," Bloomberg's Marc Champion wrote in a commentary on March 1.

"If Putin decides on a real military intervention in Ukraine, he will be gambling everything he has."

Champion notes that "in terms of Western response, Putin cannot be as sanguine as he was in 2008" adding that "NATO member Poland cares deeply about its neighbor Ukraine, and even Germany would find a Russian onslaught in Ukraine too close for comfort."

Additionally, he adds, Russia today does not enjoy the advantages it had in 2008, when oil prices were climbing and the Russian economy was growing.

And while snatching Crimea from Ukraine will prove costly for Russia in ways that securing Abkhazia and South Ossetia was not, a full-fledged invasion of the rest of Ukraine could prove to be a catastrophic and bloody quagmire.

"If Russian troops really delve into the Ukraine, I think Putin will not remain in power for more than one year," political commentator Mikhail Yampolsky wrote in

"It is difficult to imagine that Ukrainians will simply lay down their arms and bow humbly under the boots of Russian 'peacekeepers,' especially if Russian troops try to penetrate beyond the Crimea," Yampolsky wrote.

"Recently we witnessed the Berkut troops trying to clear the Maidan. The center of Kyiv was like hell and this was a battle between civil society activists and police loyal to the president. Now, imagine in place of the Berkut are Russian paratroopers -- occupiers -- and fighting alongside the locals, Ukrainian soldiers with guns."

In a post on his Facebook page, Valery Solovei, a professor at the prestigious Moscow State Institution for International Relations, wrote that he had spoken to well-informed insiders and concluded that the situation was "very serious and even tragic."

Solovei wrote that Putin made the decision to intervene in Crimea with the support of a small group of five or six senior officials who have no assets in the West; that the Kremlin is counting on a weak Western response; and that if this turns out to be correct, Russia will move to annex eastern Ukraine in the coming weeks.

He adds that there is opposition to the decision within the elite, but officials are afraid to speak out. "These officials don't dare to oppose Putin. They almost superstitiously believe in his good fortune," he wrote.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, suggested that Putin has simply taken leave of his senses.

"The poor guy's brain isn't working," political commentator Stanislav Belkovsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"It is a typical case of schizophrenia, what is happening now. It is a medical case, and when this happens, it is impossible to say what a person will do five minutes from now. It is simply unpredictable. It would be irresponsible to try. Such a person needs a strong sedative and isolation from society."

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE: This post has been updated.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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