The events of early 2014 moved quickly. The pro-Russian Ukrainian president was deposed by the pro-West protestors in Kiev over swings in economic alignment, and his supporters fled to their strongholds in the East and Crimea. Fearing retribution, and sensing the shift in political dominance away from Russia, Putin answered his opponents with simple and decisive action: secure complete Russian military control of Crimea, forment pro-Russian sentiment in regions where large Russian-speaking populations and cultural identities are strong and claim to protect Russian interests by weakening the pro-West government now threatening to revoke access to the Black Sea, threaten gas supplies to Europe that provide economic prosperity to Russia, and showcase resurgent Russian military might in the region.
So Ukraine’s nationalists made some blunders by attempting to alienate their Russian-speakers by trying to pass a law declaring Ukrainian as the only official national language. What they should have done is enshrine a law that recognizes the rights of Ukrainian citizens to choose languages they wish to learn and use in everyday life, including Russian. Culturally diverse nations provide multi-lingual educations, have multi-language books, signage, and media to serve the domestic populations of many origins, Ukraine should have made overtures and guarantees to the East early on to offer equal rights. This atmosphere created resentment in the East, and made the prospect of future policies benefitting the Russian identity based Ukrainians suspect.
So what now, that Russian troops exceeded their treaty mandate by hiding their elite unit markings and charging out of Sevastopol and taking autonomous Crimea, by law a sovereign Ukrainian territory recognized by the world community? By what right do they have to seize another country’s ground, blockade that country’s military units and confine them to base until they either switch allegiance to a favorable puppet government, or confiscate another nation’s state assets (military hardware)? From the Russian perspective, the Berkut riot police, smeared of their reputation and mostly from Crimea, now fear their families and livelihoods will be threatened by the new folks in power in Kiev. Protecting their allies became a higher priority to fulfilling treaty obligations to Ukraine, and abiding by the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 which Ukraine has no hope of enforcing with NATO.
Even though legally, Ukraine has a case. Russia does not recognize the legitimacy of the Kiev government as constitutional, and therefore all treaties and agreements are suspended until they consider the Ukrainian leaders “non-hostile” to Russia. But that is not possible because it means Russia would only honor agreements when it favors them, and can suspend them as Putin sees fit. That is not how international relations work, but it is how regional bullies work.
NATO and the United States face war fatigue, a weak global economy, high unemployment and a precarious situation where Ukraine is not an ally, but a struggle to roll back Russian logic against military action to redraw borders (which Russia sees the Kiev revolution as an armed coup of equal measure conspired by the West). The West do not want a shooting war to break out, because it will mean they will be responsible for defending Ukrainian friends against Ukrainian allies of Russia in a messy civil war. It won’t be like Syria, but much worse if Russia loses on the battlefield and resorts to drastic measures.
So what would a real war between Russia and Ukraine be like? Well for one thing, Russia would like nothing better than to start one right away while the Ukrainian government is disorganized, have no track record of good governance nor competence in leadership. It would be easy for Russia to take Crimea, so it did. Eastern Ukraine is another matter, as more Ukrainians will resist Russian invasion, and can bog his most elite forces down not immediately, but within months. Russian generals and soldiers alike do not want to fight fellow Slavs with millions having relatives on both sides of the border, nor repeat an expensive military occupation such as Afghanistan. And if Ukrainian allies emerge, such as arms supplies from NATO countries such as Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Romania cannot be stopped by force unless a wider war erupts, what then?
Russia cannot hope to conquer, occupy, nor destroy West Ukraine without causing a massive humanitarian and political backlash at the U.N. In fact, engaging in a full-scale war with Ukraine will be the end of Russia as a permanent member of the United Nations. So Russia will stop at Crimea, will create Crimea as an independent republic like South Ossetia and Abkazia, and hope to retain a favorable agreement with its puppet regime to keep their Black Sea base. The propaganda war and unrest that Russia stirs up in East Ukraine is meant to destabilize, unbalance the Ukrainians so they cannot hope to challenge the breakaway of Crimea.
But if Russia miscalculates and Putin’s generals order their troops into Ukraine in an invasion, they can smash the inexperienced and undermanned Ukrainians quickly at first and push them out of East Ukraine, but Turkey may unilaterally strike to protect the minority Tartars in Crimea (since attacking an independent republic does not actually mean attacking Russia), the Moldovans may move against Russian “peacekeepers” in their disputed territory, and Georgia may move against South Ossetia again. Can Russia suddenly fight multiple small conflicts and devastate those countries, cause thousands of deaths, and damage their prestige? What of their support of their ally Syrian Bashar al-Assad? Can they continue to provide arms and money to his regime when Europe re-militarizes, embargos Russian gas and oil, blockade the Dardanelles, and even allow the Turks to bomb Latakia as reprisal for harm to Crimean Tartars? If Russia suddenly finds itself with its army engaged all over the Black Sea region and Caucasus, would not the breakaway regions of Chechnya and Ingushetia flare up as rebels opportunistically take advantage of Russia distracted in open conflicts elsewhere?
Let’s not forget the Ukrainians are not a bunch of boy scouts either. The patriotic ones, the ones with combat experience against insurgents in Afghanistan and other peacekeeping operations, and the youth who desire better lives than what Russia can offer will fight hard for their own country because they have nothing left to lose but their lives. In time, from months to years, with logistical support, experience, and training from abroad, Ukraine can submerge Russian troops in a bloody contest for every mile of ground across the vast country. Ukrainians themselves can radicalize and become insurgents, relying on assymetrical warfare to punish Russian troops in the rear echelons and supposedly pacified zones. The ethnic and cultural lines have been blurred so long that infiltration and subterfuge will cause significant damage to Russia at home and in the multiple theaters of war.
Russia, in the long view, have much more to lose than it has calculated. The short term gain of Crimea and even several regions in the East of Ukraine can backfire in just a few short years. Ukraine will lean much further West as a result, and militarize quickly as its economic fortunes improve over the years. The eventual prosperity of an anti-Russian Ukraine will result in weakening of Russia’s other alliances as Belarus and Kazakhstan can finally see their fortunes wane when denied access to Western markets. Russia may rot from the inside out as Europe reduces their dependency and isolates Russia from their trade flows and instead pours resources into Ukraine. Ukraine will be wise to seek to form a non-NATO “Central European Defense Confederation”, drawing Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Baltic States, Georgia, even Finland into a pact that Russia will find itself in real trouble with defensively.
Putin, if he survives this event, may win Crimea, but he would forever damage Russo-European relations and cause more harm to his people than he can ever gain. He can destroy Ukraine out of spite rather that let it slip out of its sphere of influence, he can forcefully grab a chunk of it to leave less for Europe to gain. But in the end, Russia will itself become a basket case and repeat the collapse of the Soviet era, and give up all the gains reaped in the past 20 years. Would they then wage nuclear war to spite the world? Not if China steps up and takes advantage of Russian decline. China will win the most from this conflict, and that is precisely why they are letting Russia go on this adventure of self-destruction.
Does Crimea have a right to seek independence? Yes, but its legitimacy is jeopardized by Russian forces blockading Ukrainians and preventing a fair vote by denying the referendum a voice to count those who wish to stay part of the mainland.
If the Ukrainian revolt in Kiev nationalistic or fascist? Russia is employing propaganda, disinformation, suppressing dissent, and attacking opponents far more violently than the folks who forced Yanukovych to flee. Hard to say if right-wing forces dominate power in the western parts of the country, but it is not like dozens or hundreds of Russians in Ukraine are being murdered or disappeared everyday under the new government.
Is the Ukrainian government legitimate? Even though the new president and prime minister are appointed, the Parliament and Judiciary still functions and institutions remain in place. The state is still functioning, and if Russia can deal with life long dictators like Assad, it can negotiate with other governments created under less-than democratic circumstances.