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March 2, 2014

Soviet REUnion: the Power Play Behind Putin’s Invasion of Crimea

The deteriorating situation in Ukraine has finally eclipsed into the military seizure of the Crimean Peninsula by Russian forces.  Various reports suggest at least 6,000 Spetsnaz have also been deployed to Crimea in the past few days, in addition to unconfirmed numbers of Russian regulars in support of what the Putin government is alleging is a quasi-peacekeeping/defense-of-citizens role in the Peninsula.

The Russian takeover of the Peninsula highlights a major geopolitical power play for Russia, and also further solidifies Putin’s ability to usurp the combined powers of Ukrainian sovereignty, the European Union, NATO, and even the US.

(Update 2 March: it is reported a Russian convoy carrying several hundred troops is moving on the regional capital of Crimea, and that the Ukrainian military has been fully mobilized.  Live updates on the situation can be viewed here.) 

Justification

According to various reporting, this takeover began when the “Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement alleging that a group of unidentified armed men from Kiev attempted to seize the Interior Ministry building…in response…[forcing] an appeal from the chairman of the Council of Ministers of Crimea to Vladimir Putin for assistance in ‘ensuring peace and tranquility’ in Crimea.”  What does this mean?  Putin’s role as genial Olympics host is over, and the EU, NATO, US, and people of Ukraine had better take notice.

Ukraine and Crimea, courtesy of the BBC

The Putin government cares about Ukraine and the Crimea because it is geopolitically critical to Russian interests, specifically when it comes to influencing and shaping Russia’s control over Europe’s energy sector, regional security , and strategic military positioning.  These geopolitical factors influencing Russian decision-making will prove very difficult for various European, NATO, or US-backed efforts to successfully counter, based on the level of influence Russia holds in the region.

Geopolitics at Work

For starters, Russia controls over half of Ukraine’s natural gas pipelines, and is able to regulate the natural gas supply from Russia into Ukraine as it sees fit.  These are the same pipelines that provide natural gas to multiple European countries as well, a fact that is far from lost on Putin, who has “twice curtailed supplies in disputes over politics, price, and late payments…cuts that rattled countries across Europe that depend on the Russian pipelines.”

This critical interest is one that further highlights the absolute imperative of Russian dominance in the Ukraine.  Russian control over the natural gas and its pipelines that feed Europe provide Putin with major political and economical leverage over the European community, thereby solidifying Russia’s position as a still-relevant global economic and political power on the world stage.

In addition to economic and political leverage from influencing natural gas supply, Russia has a vested interest in maintaining close ties and influence in Ukraine and the Crimea in pursuit of regional security.  According to experts, Ukraine is “central to Russia’s defensibility.  The two countries share a long border, and Moscow is located only some 480 kilometers (about 300 miles) from Ukrainian territory–a stretch of land that is flat, easily traversed, and thus difficult to defend.  If some power were to block the Ukraine-Kazakh gap, Russia would be cut off from the Caucasus, its defensible southern border.”

By exercising close control throughout the Crimea and a good portion of Ukraine, Russia is able to shape and influence enough control to further solidify its regional security, which has been tested numerous times over the years.

An additional consideration for Russia’s control in the Crimea and Ukraine is the strategic military positioning of its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.  The Black Sea Fleet provides Russia with an obvious military capability but also a major presence and action arm for Russian power projection in the Black Sea and Mediterranean.

According to recent reporting, Russia also maintains 26,000 troops in Sevastopol, and has sent a large landing ship with additional special operations troops there within the past few days.  There are also unconfirmed reports of “unofficial security personnel deployed to airports in Simferopol and Sevastopol, as well as border checkpoints near mainland Ukraine that appear to be loyal to Moscow but not official Russian troops.”

Beware Exercises

While the initial Russian invasion of the Crimea may have come as a surprise to many, the geopolitical factors that highlight Ukraine’s importance to Russia as well as Russia’s clearly stated redlines and historical influence in the Peninsula should have alleviated any major shock. According to experts at Stratfor, “Crimea has long been firmly within Russia’s sphere of influence, with more than 60 percent of the republic is populated by ethnic Russians.”

In order to solidify its influence in light of military action in Crimea, Russian lawmakers have proposed legislation offering “passports and a fast-track [to] Russian citizenship to Crimean residents.”  This is an offer similar to one “extended to [residents] shortly before the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.”  This legislation would further justify the legality of using Russian military forces in Crimea to protect Russian citizens and interests.

Russian “snap exercise” mobilizations, courtesy of the National Post and RussianForces.org

This power play by Putin is very reminiscent of previous Russian military displays, as evidenced in Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, which was also preceded by multiple military exercises in the Caucasus prior to the invasion.  Prior to invading the Peninsula, Russia mobilized an impressive military force in support of a “snap exercise”.  “Some 150,000 troops, 90 aircraft, 880 tanks, 1,200 pieces of military hardware and more than 120 helicopters participated in the exercises, which involve operations along Russia’s western borders, including those with Ukraine.”  Naturally, the Russian Defense Minister stated that the drills were in no way, shape, or form related to the events in Ukraine.  He must have been referring to the other Ukraine.

The Rocky Road Ahead

While many have expressed disapproval over Putin’s power play invasion, it is unlikely enough of a cohesive or effective response will be mounted from the US, NATO, EU, or Ukraine.  From a military standpoint, external involvement from any third parties in an attempt to reclaim the Crimea from Russia would spark a world war, and is out of the question.  However, recent assessments by the Ukrainian national security council of Ukrainian military capabilities have realized how ill-equipped their forces are to face Russia head-on, so a Ukrainian-Russian military option is unlikely as well.

Based on these limited military options, matters of politics and economics will most likely prove the most effective influencers leveraged to obtain as much of a mutually beneficial solution as realistically possible.  With Ukraine being influenced by both Eastern and Western powers, it remains to be seen how beneficial such an option will prove for the West, who is already one step behind Putin.

Thanks for listening.

(Feature Image Courtesy of Independent.co.uk)

About the Author

is a junior active duty officer working ground intel and supporting an airborne-capable unit. Not SOF, just a regular guy. He holds a BS in Political Science with a German minor from a small engineering school in Colorado, where he loves the adventure found in the mountains. He strongly advocates admitting nothing, denying everything, and making counter-accusations. Nothing here is written in an official capacity or represents the positions of the USG; all work is his personal opinion alone. NFQ

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  • Tobiathan

    Now the Obama admin's resistance to the Keystone XL makes sense: had it been completed or well under way by now the EU and Eastern Europe would have a viable and realistic alternative to Russia's stranglehold on Europe LG and petrol supplies. Since the XL is still dead-in-the-water the US has a less attractive source of replacement due to lower continuous supplies of fuels. If Obama weren't Putin's hand-puppet he'd call on the EU to to cut off it's reliance on Russian fuel and to accept US replacements of the fuels, of which America is still capable. Until our navy is properly gutted by socialists in our government, that is. At this point I wouldn't be shocked to see President Barack O'Carter return the whole of Alaska to Putin as a gift of worship....

  • Tobiathan

    ArcticWarrior - "..nice perkies!"?! Awesome. +2

  • NicholasP

    With a US/NATO military intervention off the table, what do you think about the possibility of a low intensity insurgency using guerrilla warfare tactics, against Russian targets of opportunity by Ukrainian nationalists? Great post.

  • YankeePapa

    RobertNeville, . "... Crimea was essentially a Russian state in the first place..."  At least the Western half is very much not so...  Like the U.S. deciding that Canada is pretty much part of the U.S.  A lot of good folk up there see it differently... . ...I had relatives on my mother's side of the family who fought in the Irish brigades and after the Civil War took part in an actual invasion of Canada... (there were two)... Fenian effort... Get the Brits to deploy troops from Ireland... Was a miserable failure... . -YP-

  • RobertNeville

    All valid points. Sadly, no one is going to risk American blood for something as old fashioned as freedom from Russia. I'm not saying we should, although allowing Russia to take the entire country with no military response would be a tragedy. I can understand why Ukrainians would be upset but Crimea was essentially a Russian state in the first place so I don't see that it alters much strategically. I doubt Russia is interested in biting off the entire Ukraine at this time, primarily because the Gasprom pipeline would be exceedingly vulnerable. I'm more hopeful that regime change will turn things around. And by "regime change" I mean ours.