TSG IntelBrief: Ukraine, Crimea, and the Quest for a Neo-Russian Empire
March 3, 2014

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UKRAINE: Russian guided missile cruiser anchored in the bay of Sevastopol, Crimea

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• The Putinist vision of rebuilding the influence of Russia as an expansive power continues to hold, from Crimea to Syria

• In the Crimean War of 1853-56, Russian interests in the Black Sea were enveloped by British, French, and Ottoman forces—and in March 2014 there is a repeat of history: conflict over territory, alliances of culturally and linguistically-linked people, and the eternal demand for warm water ports

• Current events are every bit as much about taking the lessons of Putin’s “Georgia 2008 playbook” and bidding to carve out Crimean Ukraine

• Western nations, caught off guard by Russian troop movements, are at a loss for an effective solution to what will most likely prove to be a long-term problem.

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Persistent Interests and an Age-Old Conflict

In the Crimean War of 1853-56, it was French, British and Ottoman allies on one side and Russia and her cultural, religious, and linguistic constituents on the other. The war was about territorial influence, control and, of course, the ports of the Black Sea and beyond—then as now.

It’s early to tell, but in the near term Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be following his “2008 Georgia Conflict playbook,” when he saw the wisdom of carving out the natural alliances of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In those places, he received only plaudits from the indigenous folk and tepid push back from the West. Contrast and nuance notwithstanding, Putin’s gambit in the Crimean Peninsula is strikingly similar. Moreover, the quest and demand for warm water ports in the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean (Tartus, Syria) abide.

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Backdrop

With Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula this past weekend, Russian President Putin turned a simmering regional issue with international repercussions into an international issue with the potential for far-reaching results virtually overnight.

By mobilizing Russian forces already based in the Crimea, and moving troops, tanks, and air assets across the border from Russia into hotly contested territory, Russia has essentially declared war upon neighboring Ukraine, breaking international law, and shocking the world with its show of audacious aggression.

As of this Brief, there have been no reports of fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces. But with tensions rising between the two countries, reports of demonstrators from opposing sides attacking each other, vital Ukrainian civil and military sites and infrastructure in Crimea being surrounded by armed Russian forces, and groups of ethnic-Russian Ukrainian citizens and pro-Russian armed militias in the Crimea openly supporting Russia’s moves, it is feasible fighting could start upon the smallest provocation.

While Putin claims the move aims only to protect ethnic Russian citizens and interests in a country where neither had been threatened prior to the start of Russian troop movements, the action is not justified in Western eyes. As early reports have shown, Russia’s actions have unified the West, which may be more detrimental to Russia than it believes.

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Déjà vu

As with many historic military invasions over the past century, the rapidly changing situation on the ground—and the speed with which the invasion took place—caught the West completely flat-footed. While the US told Russia it would be closely watching the country’s military “drills” along the Ukrainian border late last week, it seems nobody believed Russia would take the next step and enter the Crimea. Now that it has, the US and its allies in Western Europe are left with few options but to follow a copy of the same script history has provided the West, which has been written and re-written over the last 100 years.

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Limited Choices

Short of sending troops into Ukraine to counter Russia’s aggression—a move that almost all experts agree is improbable for the US and its allies—it seems Western hands are all but tied while diplomats and leaders scramble for a solution and await Russia’s next move.

The military operation is supported by the Russian upper house of parliament, which voted unanimously on Saturday to allow the deployment of troops to the Crimea, giving Putin both a legal preemptive “moral justification,” at least domestically, for his actions. And those actions, in a cross-border domino effect, give the majority ethnic Russians living in the Crimea, who have historically identified more with Russia than Ukraine, both the strength and the license to rise up against the new Ukrainian government in Kiev and its minority Ukrainian supporters in the Crimea.

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• Russia will continue to shore up its military and political positions in the Crimea while Western nations scramble to come up with ways to get Putin to reverse his course

• Supported by the Russian ethnic majority throughout the Crimea and bolstered by the Russian parliament at home, Putin will continue to reject Western demands for the immediate removal of Russian troops from the Crimea. Russia will keep troops there until that region officially secedes from the rest of the country with the help of Russian mentors and monitors acting in the name of “safety” and “security”

• Unable to dislodge Russian troops from the Crimea, Western nations will implement heavy, but not completely ineffective, sanctions against Russia, while sending economic aid to the new Ukrainian government in an effort to shore up Western-leaning elements in the country

• Russian and Western relations will be damaged for the near to medium-term, as each side becomes more polarized against the other.

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