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The Keys of Krym

The Crimean Crisis is the most significant event in world history since the Cold War. Seven keys lock its meaning.

1 – Crimea is the result of a long evolution.

While the West may generally be excused for being surprised by the severity of this particular crisis, it is more difficult to understand why it seems surprised by the crisis itself. Russia and the West have been on a collision course for years – and how far back one would place its point-of-no-return is a contentious matter: Mr Putin’s ascension to power in 1999?; the 2004 Orange revolutions?; the 2008 war in Georgia?; the failure of the 2009 ‘reset’ under the pressure of such signal differences as on Libya, Syria, missile defence and the 2012 elections protests in Moscow? Indeed, there is even a good case to be made that the formal end of the Cold War was really just a truce and that Russia was always going to ‘be back’ as an adversary rather than a friend, irrespective of domestic transformations.

That Russia had accumulated a long and serious list of grievances in relation to its Western partners by 2014, was abundantly clear to the European and US allies. But the view in Western capitals was simply that Russia could not do anything about all this. It was too weak and nobody really paid much attention to the Russians’ regular fits of anger or sabre rattling. When Mr Putin announced a $600bn rearmament programme in 2010, no one took that seriously.

But the fact remains that objectively speaking Russia has been continuously moving towards an ever-increasing adversarial posture towards the US in particular and NATO/EU in general. This political trend has also been matched, especially since the aftermath of the 2008 Georgia war and in the context of mounting petro-dollar receipts, by a consistent, uninterrupted (and since 2012, accelerated) military overhaul and rearmament programme.

It is true that many past similar trends between great powers (political adversity accompanied by arms races) did not end in a confrontation and there is no pre-ordained conclusion to such dynamics. Diplomacy and other measures can lead todetente. But it is equally true that confrontation is also a distinct and very real possibility. The fact that this seems to have been almost completely disregarded by Western powers in the run-up to Crimea, shows crass strategic and political incompetence.

2 – Crimea will be with us for a long time.

Crimea should not have come as a surprise. While it could have been averted, it reflects a systemic breakdown of international relations that has been at least a decade in the making. No other event since 1992 compares with the Crimean watershed. 9/11 was more dramatic, and led to two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – but it did not affect the makeup of the international system.

Russia has just shattered a number of illusions that 70 years of European peace, of which 25 of absolute security, had perpetuated. The use of force for blunt territorial gain, the post-1945 ‘unthinkable’, is now part of the game, again. This cannot beeasily reversed or dismissed as an ‘accident’; such precedents cannot be easily forgotten by any side. While what is left of the international legal norms underpinning the post-1945 world order will still retain the semblance of supreme authority, the essential ingredient (‘no exceptions’) is now gone. International law will still play a major role – but not as a guarantor of anything and anyone, certainly not as a deterrent. It will most likely be turned into a rhetorical and propaganda device used as a political stick against rivals ‘in public’.

This fracture can eventually be mended. The huge confidence gap opened by the collapse of international legal guarantees can eventually be filled but it will take a lot of money, skill and luck. Hard-power counter-measures, careful diplomacy and inspired leadership will be required to eventually reach a new settlement that cancels the ‘Crimean effect’ on international law. However, Russia’s immediate neighbours will be the last to forget Crimea even in this happy scenario; in the meantime, their national security outlook has just been re-formatted.

3 – Crimea allows Russia to dominate the Black Sea, in a major strategic gain.

Crimea has never stopped being the centre of Russia’s naval power in the Black Sea, through the excellent Sevastopol naval base. The recent Russian takeover of the entire Crimea only brings secondary (not fundamental) naval advantages by removing all limitations on Russian naval activity (and fleet size) allowed in Sevastopol by the recently-voided bilateral agreement with Ukraine. There are important operational gains resulting from control of the entire Crimean coastline, as well.

But the strategic game-changer in the Black Sea is that now Russia is again in full control of the Crimean aircraft carrier. “Aircraft carrier Crimea” was a much-used description of the peninsula in the context of Second World War operations in the Black Sea basin. From an Axis-occupied Crimea, Luftwaffe aircraft could keep the much superior Russian Black Sea Fleet at bay, and inflict heavy losses if it ventured outside its (last remaining) bases down on the Georgian coast. The same is true today, for Russia, but even more so: the Russians can now not only base heavy airpower on Crimea, but also their most advanced missile systems – with an operational range gain of 300km westwards.

This is highly significant, since it brings NATO assets such as the Kogalniceanu air base and Constanta port in Romania, within range of a wider set of Russian strike weapons than before. Crucially, it also drastically impacts early-warning timeframes and increases the risk of surprise attack in case of war. Naval and aerospace control of the Black Sea (certainly outside its western littoral) is now firmly in Russian hands and locked by aircraft carrier Crimea.

4 – Crimea highlights Russia’s capacity to influence things in the region, in a way that no Western ally can.

putinThe West seems to have overlooked (or perhaps never understood) Russia’s residual informal power assets in non-EU Eastern Europe, based on legacy Soviet networks and relationships. Often, the dissolution of USSR and the Warsaw Pact is presented in Western analysis in terms similar to Western colonial retreat, or (militarily) similar to Nazi withdrawal from occupied territories as the war was drawing to a close. But in the Russian case, this misses out on the heavy and persistent intelligence penetration of ‘near-abroad’ countries (particularly Ukraine), at both military and political levels – let alone the economic one. Given Russia’s traditional excellence in subversion, propaganda and other types of ‘influence operations’, coupled with the crucial strategic significance these states have had for Russia especially after the fall of the USSR, it was only to be expected that the Kremlin would have a strong, albeit invisible, grip on many levers of power in these countries. This is ‘home ground’ for Russia.

Its capacity, therefore, to influence events on the ground is remarkable. However, these tactics and ways of exerting pressure and influence are largely unknown in the Western experience – certainly on this scale. The failure to understand the full extent of this may have had an important bearing on Western strategic thinking in the run-up to Crimea, and on Western crisis management during the events of the last couple of months (Feb-Mar 2014). If the West based its core strategic calculation on an assessment of Russia’s conventional power, disregarding these informal power assets, this would go a long way to explaining the developments in the Crimean crisis.

In any event, the Crimean crisis amply illustrates that in this particular region of the world Russia enjoys an important (and so far decisive) asymmetric advantage in a confrontation with any adversary – especially Western.

5 – Crimea is an ideological confrontation.

The Crimean crisis is a watershed moment also because it is the best expression to date of the new ideological confrontation between the West and Russia (but not only Russia). This time, it is not about liberal-capitalism vs communism; but between realism and idealism – and it is a battlefield that has been developing slowly since the end of the Cold War. On the face of it, the two sets of notions are difficult to reconcile under the same idea of ‘ideology’. Yet, inasmuch as realism and idealism outline two different worldviews and systems of belief that are clearly and systematically shaping foreign policy of two opposing parties, they might well warrant consideration as ideologies.

Russia has had a consistently realist behaviour in international politics over the past decade, at least as far military action was concerned, and its logic has arguably been broadly vindicated. The Kremlin opposed the Iraq war, which turned into a fiasco. It opposed regime change in Libya, which has now created a terrorist-infested failed state across the sea from Europe. It has also opposed intervention against Mr Assad in Syria, and there are strong reasons to think that a collapse of the Damascus government would have turned Syria into an even worse nightmare than it already is. These Russian decisions have been largely interpreted in the West as attempts to weaken or embarrass the US or NATO. Moscow’s reputation as a ‘spoiler’ is well established in Western analysis – but this misses the substance behind these Russian policies, which is a different strategic calculus based on a different ideological (for lack of a better word) framework: realism.

Recognising this core difference would go a long way toward understanding that the confrontation with Russia, today and for the foreseeable future, has an ideological dimension. Moscow’s realism must be opposed by a doctrine of equivalent efficiency.

6 – Crimea is an opportunity.

The Crimean crisis is not all bad news for Europe and especially NATO: the long-lamented former foe whose collapse (convalescence?) has caused so much existential angst to the world’s greatest military alliance, is back. Strategically, this is a golden opportunity for European governments to put defence firmly back on the public spending agenda, to remind themselves of the value of these alliances and to strengthen them for an entire new generation. European reaction to Crimea over the next few months, from this point of view, will be a key indication to everybody (especially Moscow) of what the European alliance is really made of.

But beyond Europe, Crimea is arguably something much more: it is perhaps an opportunity to start moving toward a new world order, hopefully in a controlled way. Crimea may mark the official end of ‘unipolarity’ (which has been in agony for many years now), and the beginning of an era where states (not just amorphous terrorist organisations) can openly defy American power and demonstrate its limits. If this is indeed the case, then a new ‘multipolar’ system must be constructed and achieving this with minimal disruption would mean Crimea would not have been in vain.

7 – Crimea can turn very bad.

At the same time, the Crimean crisis has all the structural features of a confrontation that can turn very dangerous indeed. In the largest sense, Crimea is a clash between a core Russian strategic interest and a secondary (at best) Western strategic whim. The Kremlin cannot afford to allow its perceived arch-nemesis NATO/EU arrive ante portas via Ukraine; this is the quintessential illustration of a ‘red line’, in every way. Russia will likely be willing to really ‘pay any cost, bear any burden’ to see of this ‘threat’ (unless sanctions will cause an internal coup against Mr Putin, which is improbable). Yet no Western power has any remotely comparable interest in the fate of Ukraine; the consequences of a definitive Russian geopolitical success in the Crimean crisis could certainly be grave for Western credibility and overall security, perhaps even political cohesion in the worst of cases. But firstly, any serious Russian follow-up act against NATO itself would be years away assuming their economy does not collapse in the meantime (we forget how comparatively weak the Russian military is at the moment), so not an immediate concern like in the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example. And secondly, the essential fact is that Ukraine actually lies outside the Western architecture: there is no comparable responsibility tying NATO/EU countries to Ukraine as to eachother. In the virtuous political and popular rhetoric surrounding the Maidan and its aftermath, this basic point was somewhat obscured and Ukraine came to be seen almost as an equal ally; but it is not, and this will limit the extent of Western risk-taking, when push comes to shove.

So at the highest, strategic level Russia’s position seems unassailable (unless the country collapses from within) given its willingness to escalate the conflict exceeds that of the West. This straightforward dynamic offers the essential condition for averting a catastrophic war: as much clarity as one can ever get over cost/benefit calculations of both sides, and over escalation limits. Yet, paradoxically, this most safe of dynamics is also the most dangerously unstable – and for the same reasons. The very clarity of the West’s inferior strategic position can easily push it (aided by various events and forces) to try to change that damaging perception, thereby drawing it further into the crisis. In this logic, the West might well end up, intentionally or not, limiting Russia’s options to the point where it feels the only way out (not to survive, but to maintain status) is a limited nuclear strike. That point cannot be determined in advance, but from what we know of Russia’s nuclear doctrine, the threshold is likely much lower than for the West.

Seven Keys of Krym

Crimea is a watershed event in world history, perhaps opening the way to an eventual new world order: global multipolarity. However, building a new consensus on global governance will be long in the making; in the meantime, we will have to live with the immediate consequences of Crimea. This is especially true for Russia’s immediate neighbours, which have also just become more vulnerable in strictly military-operational terms as Russia resumes control of ‘aircraft carrier Crimea’.

Trying to oppose Russia directly in its near-abroad only sets the scene for an unfair fight: Kremlin has the ‘home-ground’ advantage. This is the key point where the West must apply the most realist of its analyses before embarking on any drastic course of action. In fact, it is more likely that the confrontation with Russia will have to take place more in the political-ideological realm than on any battlefields. A Western liberal idealistic worldview will confront Eastern conservative realpolitik – across the world, and the Internet.

Finally, the current crisis (and probably for the next few months at least) is fraught with danger because of its underlying strategic dynamic that is paradoxically both safe and unstable at the same time. Limited nuclear attack is a (remote for now) possibility. But on the positive side, no good crisis should go to waste, and there are real opportunities arising from the Crimean crunch to strengthen and re-affirm the unity and values of the West – and perhaps to adapt them to an emerging multipolar world.

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