Alphen, Netherlands. 3 March. Article 30 of the May 2009 Russian National Security Strategy states, “Negative influences on the military security of the Russian Federation and its allies are aggravated by the departure from international agreements pertaining to arms limitation and reduction, and likewise by actions intended to disrupt the stability of systems of government and military administration…” The Russian invasion this past weekend is blatant flouting of international law. It is also a long-planned intervention that has been sitting in the files of the Russian Defence Ministry since at least 1991. The grand strategic reason for the intervention is the determination of Moscow to reassert control over what it sees as Russia’s “near abroad” with Ukraine as its lynchpin. However, there are five additional reasons why Moscow has seized the collapse of the Yanukovich regime as the moment to intervene – history, military strategy, military capability, politics and opportunity.
History: Ukraine has always had a strong pull on the Russian mind as it is the spiritual home of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1954 Ukrainian-born Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handed ‘control’ of the Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. As Ukraine was then firmly under Moscow’s control the transfer mattered little, although it did mean the de facto shift of ethnic Russians and Tartars under the nominal administrative fiat of Kiev. On Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 the transfer became a matter of both historical and strategic import to Moscow. ‘Loss’ of Ukraine to the EU (and eventually NATO) would be the final humiliation to the Kremlin following two decades of perceived retreat since the end of the Cold War in 1989.
Military Strategy: One of Russia’s long held strategic mantras has been the need to maintain a warm water naval base that could enable Russian influence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Sevastopol has long provided just such a facility for the Black Seas Fleet, which is in fact the Russian Mediterranean Fleet. The nature of the Russian military operation this weekend and the use of Special Forces to establish a bridgehead at Simferopol and Sevastopol Airports are indicative. They point to a classic Russian expeditionary operation that creates and exploits local unrest to enable seizure of the seat of government as well as control of land, sea and air space. The initial aim is to secure the Sevastopol base and its lines of supply and re-supply with Russia.
Military Capability: In 2010 Russia announced it would inject $775 billion into the professionalization and modernization of its armed forces. This followed the disappointing performance of Russian forces in 2008 during Moscow’s seizure of parts of Georgia. The bulk of those new forces are established in the Central and Western Military Districts which abut the Ukrainian border. The kit being worn by the deployed force demonstrates a mix of Special Forces (Spetsnaz) and specialised forces and reflects the effort Moscow has made to improve deployability of its elite professional forces.
Ukrainian forces have enjoyed no such modernization. In any case the upper echelons of the Ukrainian military’s command chain are deeply split, as evinced by the defection this weekend by the Head of the Ukrainian Navy. Many senior Ukrainian officers owe their appointment to Yanukovich.
Politics: The Putin regime was established in 2000 and led to the cult of Putinism. It is a regime that consolidates domestic power by appealing to nostalgic Russian notions of grandeur. In particular the regime has endeavoured to recreate the sense of a Russia powerful enough to re-capture the influence Moscow enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s at the height of the Soviet Union’s super-power. The 2014 Sochi Olympics were very much part of the regime’s image-building. In 2013 US Secretary of State John Kerry gave equal billing to Russia in the handling of the Syria crisis and enhanced the reputation of the regime at home.
Opportunity: The Kremlin under Putin is first and foremost a strategic opportunist. The withdrawal of two US Brigade Combat Teams from Europe may seem small in and of itself. However, taken together with the ‘pivot’ to Asia and President Obama’s uncertain grip of grand strategy the US is no longer the stabilising force in Europe it once was. The Kremlin also has contempt for ideas of ‘civil power’ built around Germany and the EU. Moreover, Russia’s military renaissance has taken place in parallel with the West’s failures in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The Kremlin is also acutely conscious of Europe’s economic travails and de facto disarmament with total defence spending in Europe down by minus 1.8% per annum since 2001. Moreover, the refusal of all but two NATO European states to meet their obligation to spend 2% of GDP on defence has also led Moscow to conclude that Europeans lack the will and capability to block Moscow’s regional-strategic ambitions.
Implications for Russia and Ukraine: The seizure of parts of Ukraine will in the short-term strengthen the grip of Putin over Russia. However, Russia faces deep demographic and economic challenges which unless addressed will see Russia continue to fade as the West, China and others eclipse Moscow.
The east of Ukraine is very vulnerable. Moscow has a cynical view of the use of power and will almost certainly use the concerns of ethnic Russians to justify an intervention that would straighten Russia’s strategic borders and thus consolidate the new Russian sphere of influence.
Recommendations: There is no quick fix available to Western policymakers. However, Western allies must use all the non-military tools at their disposal to force the Kremlin to reconsider the costs versus the benefits of such action. That will include use of international fora to build a countervailing coalition, possibly with China which dislikes sovereignty grabs. All economic tools must be applied with sanctions imposed on key officials, with Aeroflot flights to Europe and North America suspended and Gazprom slowly removed from the European market. The accounts of senior Russians outside of the the country must be frozen. Finally, the US must re-position forces back in Europe, including the Baltic States and Europeans must commit to the re-building of their armed forces.
Conclusions: Over the medium-to-long term NATO allies must re-establish credible defence as part of a balanced economic, diplomatic and military influence effort in and around Europe. Former US President Bill Clinton and former US Ambassador to NATO Nick Burns said yesterday that the enlargement of NATO to former members of the Soviet Bloc guaranteed their security. This is correct to a point. Without the modernisation of Article 5 collective defence the value of NATO membership will over time erode and if Putin remains in power the Kremlin will exploit such weakness.