Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Power Vertical

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.

Tags: crimea,Vladimir Putin,Power Vertical blog,Crimean War

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Anonymous
March 03, 2014 20:20
Just a small correction: the link to Bloomberg's Marc Champion is broken, because it is missing a semicolon after http ... http// should be http:// -- thanks, great article

by: Dr David Hill from: Huddersfield, UK
March 03, 2014 20:22
Although I do not condone Russian intervention (if a full occupation comes), I also deplore the West’s stance on not letting the democratic decision of the people of the Crimea decide whether they wish to stay within the Ukraine or join the Russian Federation. It is as though the West is as usual imposing their standards and if the West still believes in ‘Democracy’ outwardly (ironically their politicians only believe in their party’s control of a nation in reality if you study western politics), they should let the people of the Crimea decide. That is what is happening in Scotland isn’t it within the UK, or is there something different here? Or could it be that we can do it, but others can’t when it comes to the people’s will and democratic decision-making?

But this of course if big business has some hefty investments in the Crimea and where, as we all know, politicians just do as their master’s bidding behind closed doors. For in this respect all wars are economic at their roots, but where the people pay with their lives not politicians or big business -

We shall see what happens in the Crimea, but where their people will have to decide not the West who’s politicians when they put ‘boots on the ground’ only usually create the bringing back home of untold body bags of others. Note not politicians and the CEOs of big business who create the seeds of wars indirectly, but the sons, daughters, fathers and mothers of normal working class people – 90% of a nation’s population and not the rich and powerful 10% who live in another world and where others invariably die on their behalf, but never themselves.

Dr David Hill
Chief Executive
World Innovation Foundation
In Response

by: Anonymous
March 03, 2014 20:57
And, as far as I know, the normal democratic process in Ukraine would have led to a referendum in Crimea at some point -- local politicians would make sure of that, especially since the government would be rather weak for a while, even in the best-case scenario (lots of money from the IMF, quiet transition from Turchenov-Yatsenyuk to the next president elect), etc.

In other words: in order to get a referendum, in which Crimea would almost certainly opt out (and later want to reunite with Russia), there was absolutely no need to invade. It could all be done in the normal way, and with a very high chance of success. Hell, I bet Russia could have gotten Germany to agree with them and defend the cause of an independent-then-reunited-with-Russia Crimea -- Germany has gone through its own reunification not so long ago.

Which is why I disagree with you that the West is "disregarding the will of the people of Crimea". As far as I can see, the West is reacting against a totally unnecessary attack by Russian forces to secure a territory that they could easily have gained without that, in a couple of years or so. It's an unnecessary crisis, created, as far as I can see, only so that Putin can show what he can do.

After this crisis is over, I doubt that any Western power will oppose the desire of Crimea to reunite with Russia. I am sure they will insist assurances be given to the Crimean Tatars that they will not be targeted for discrimination -- but other than that, I am sure that the West will agree that, if the Crimeans want out, then they should get what they want. Or do you see anybody anywhere claiming that Crimea should remain in Ukraine forever, regardless of what the Crimean people think?
In Response

by: Dr David Hill from: Huddersfield
March 04, 2014 19:36
You have missed the point and are beating about the edges. I don't see an invasion by Russia or have you a different tv set to mine and the reporting that is going on. How many have the Russian military killed unlike the west when they go in.

Democracy decision making no matter if it has not a referendum can only be the right way if a people want to go that way. There are too many of these referenda and politicians invariably change the goal posts time and time again. So just let the people deicide as that is the greatest referendum that can possibly be achieved, not through the vested-interests of politicians who basically have no bounds according to history.

Unfortunately again another person who hides behind the cloak of secrecy with anonymous postings. Cannot understand this if people have convictions?
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
March 05, 2014 06:32
Crimea is influx by Russia, but most of population are just
Russian-speaking or non-Russians, like Tatars, and even Russians would like live in democratic Ukraine, not in Russian
Tatars were and are persecuted, though Russian aggressors
would like use them as "oboroten's", at least in name, till
they still useful. As they did to many, like Chechens and Ingush:
Used during WW1 as "Wild Divisions", used to move on
Lenin's Petrograd, talked out of it, were squeezed out of
some lands to breed Russians and Cossacks, used fight
WW2, but than used by pre-planed army of Vlasov, after
betraying and surrounding Ukrainian army, force Germans
exterminate them as "Jews" or make Chechens and Ingush
give to fight last 60,000 men, after the war surrounded by
Russians, as they plane, to repopulate Chechen and Ingush
by Russians and Cossacks... The rest of history we know
all to well - Russia try use them as "oboroten's" against CIS.
In Response

by: anonymous from: US
March 04, 2014 03:38
Nice switch, Dr David Hill: turning this discussion into your own personal screed about big, bad big business.

Why not stick with the basics - a country has just invaded its neighbor under flimsy pretext. Period.
In Response

by: Dr David Hill from: Huddersfield
March 04, 2014 19:26
If a people are overridingly Russian and outwardly state that they want to align themselves with Russia (haven't you been reading the news and what the people of Crimea want) I would say let them democratically do what they wish. If someone told you 'anonymous' (I don't know why people do this and hide behind this cloak of secrecy) that you as a Texas citizen or from any state citizen for that matter that you could not align yourself with the USA, would you say that was against your democratic right? Think clearly please for a change anonymous and get your thinking into perspective.
In Response

by: archangel from: canada
March 16, 2014 22:42
Perhaps "Dr" Hill could use a new tv,or maybe the good Dr is visually impaired!
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
March 05, 2014 06:48
What are you another Churkin?
To vote under Russian SS guard, like in a Nazi camp?
Or like killing children in Beslan by GRU, than invade
North Ossetia, staff it with Quislings (children-slaves of GRU,
raped by Russian pigs from Boldyrev army Osetin girls),
than staff north Ossetia with invading Russian armies,
than invade Georgian "South Osetia",
than use the same quislings and call it
will of Ossetians and Georgians?
There is no Russian population or separatists!
Only Russian apparatus of violence with their families
and raped by Russian spies and army non-Russian women
and their children, drugged through spy schools Quislings.
Russia invade with spies, pretending be local "Separatists"
and local "Russians".
Russia lies and Western media lies with it, being staffed by
Russians - you can identify them right away - they conspiring
with the criminal - Russia.
It is the same goal of Russia, they always stated:
"Russia must expand in each generation into non-Russian lands,
cleanse, dispossess, repopulate - breed more ethnic Russian
Russia is abomination for Law of God, UN Charter
and International law.
Go back Russians to bogs, along with Belorussian
"Zmut'" and Masked "Spathnaz Salamandras"!
In Response

by: saucymugwump from:
March 05, 2014 21:10
Dr David Hill wrote "I also deplore the West's stance on not letting the democratic decision of the people of the Crimea decide whether they wish to stay within the Ukraine or join the Russian Federation"

Sure, right after Britain allows Leicester and other Islamic cities in the UK to declare themselves independent Islamic republics.

Not to mention the parts of Slovakia which have large numbers of Hungarians and vice versa.

Look up "Sudetenland Hitler" when you have a minute.

by: Alex from: Baltimore, USA
March 03, 2014 22:31
I've been neck-deep in Russian news sites for days now, following the unfolding Ukraine crisis, and I have to say - I have not seen this level of out and out bald-faced lying, deliberate disinformation, propaganda, and hatemongering from official Russian outlets since my college and graduate school days, when I first began to study the Soviet Union and Russian history systematically. I really feel that Putin has now crossed the Rubicon and there's no going back with him. We can no longer pretend that he is or even could be our friend or partner - he is our enemy and his Russia is again an aggressive, imperialistic dictatorship that oppresses its own people and threatens its neighbors. We must realize that and work to contain and oppose Putin and his gang of crooks, spooks, and thugs until their ignominious end at the hands of their own people. We don't need to send US troops anywhere - there is plenty we can do with visa bans, asset freezes, trade sanctions, and worldwide economic and diplomatic isolation. Unlike the Soviets, the modern Russian elite is part of the world and don't want to be cast out again, and we can use that against them. We also have to engage the Russians in the information war and actively call them out on all of their clumsy lies. In short, we're in a new Cold War, and the sooner we understand that and start defending our friends and our interests, the better off we'll be.
In Response

by: Sergey from: Crimea
March 05, 2014 12:30
What do you speaking...
Crimea's people - 90% russians/tatars. No Ukrainians.
Crimea is Russian land.
What war???

by: Anonymous
March 03, 2014 22:41
I don't see any war in Crimea
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
March 05, 2014 14:29
A very good point, Anonymous: in a real war people usually die. Take, for example, the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - hundreds of thousands of dead Afghanis, Iraquis and Beavuses - and all of that for absolutely nothing, as long as the US has not achieved anything at all in either of the two.
And now take the Russian intervention in the Crimean Republic: not a single shot, not a signle dead soldier or civilian, and the result: Russia appears to have retaken control of a beautiful Peninsula with some 2.000.000 (primarily Russian) population with a significant economic (tourism) and strategic potential.
Here is where one sees who carries his "wars" smartly and who... :_)))
In Response

by: Asehpe
March 05, 2014 22:37
Like I always say: if you want to be a bully, do it subtly.

Ah! If only he had done that in Chechnya...

by: SpiritOf1776 from: USA
March 04, 2014 02:11
Excellent historical article with current insight from Solovei and Belkovsky. New to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Glad to have found it through exclusive video captions provided to CNN while watching coverage. Looking forward to more columns through your RSS feeds.

by: Foma
March 06, 2014 20:03
If my history serves me correct, the Russians invaded Ottoman possessions in Bulgaria and Romania in "defense" of its Orthodox subjects, NOT Crimea. Crimea had long since been part of the Russian Empire at the time of the Crimean War. It was pursued by the British, French and Turks after Russia's failed invasion of Ottoman Turkey as part of a counteroffensive by the Allies resulting in the Siege of Sevastopol. Hardly analogous to the events taking place today.
Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have very strong historical ties to Russia and their annexation is very much on the cards at the moment, especially with regard to the former. And despite the dubious legality of Putin's actions in the eyes of international law, there's little America or Europe can to do about it, sanctions notwithstanding. The the politics of the Great Game in 19th Century Europe is not indicative of the West's reaction to Russian expansionism today, especially on territory that has a very strong Russian element.

by: Anonymous
March 06, 2014 23:30

The ex-Israeli soldier who led a Kiev fighting unit
Delta' has headed 'the Blue Helmets of Maidan' of 40 men and women - including several IDF veterans - in violent clashes with government forces.

by: richard o'neill from: canada
March 10, 2014 06:43
Well written article, thank you......Is it also possible that equally important in Putin's need to invade is spin control..... a power play for the siloviki and a restless Russian public that any zeitgeist for democracy, accountabiltiy and unwinding of the kleptocracy, such as we have witnessed in Kiev.... will be met with swift and unequivocal response in Moscow? And one way for Russians not to be seeing themselves in the mirror when they look to to make them hate them.... How about a xenophobic war with a fake pretext?

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers 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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