On the brink

As I am writing this blog entry, something that worryingly resembles the beginning of a civil war is underway in Eastern Ukraine. The triple strategy of the Ukrainian government – send in the military but restrain its activity, ask for UN peacekeepers, offer a countrywide referendum on federalisation – has failed. First, there are reports on Ukrainian troops switching sides, following a couple of small-scale skirmishes yesterday and today: in fact, armoured vehicles with Russian flags are entering the town of Sloviansk as I’m writing this. Second, despite yet another session of the Security Council scheduled for today afternoon, it is clear that the UN will not intervene. Third, though its ultimate goal may be the federalisation of Ukraine, Russia will not agree to a countrywide referendum that, without doubt, would be won by the opponents of a federal Ukraine. A Russian invasion seems to be imminent. However, there are some points that need to be stated. 

1. There are huge differences between Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. A thoughtful analysis on Reuters yesterday echoed my earlier musings about the differences between the two regions. While Crimea had a Russian military base on its territory, meaning Russian troops were readily present, Eastern Ukraine does not have such a base. While Crimea used to be an autonomous region that had formerly belonged to Russia, Eastern Ukraine is not (or, at least, not in the same way), furthermore, it does not even have clear borders, making it difficult to delimit from the rest of the country. While Crimea has an ethnic Russian (and possibly – though this is debatable – a pro-Russia) majority, in Eastern Ukraine the situation is far from being clear, considering the population’s strong regional identities and mixed demographic background. While Russia executed practically unveiled military operations in Crimea, in Eastern Ukraine it’s less clear whether separatist militias are actually Russian soldiers, as Mark Galeotti pointed out. Although there surely are some of them present, those actually taking up guns may be armed Cossacks or other paramilitary groups.

2. The potential costs of the annexation are not the same. Arguably, Crimea is a burden large enough to cripple the Russian budget as it is. Eastern Ukraine, with an estimated population of almost four times as much as the peninsula and decrepit industries would probably be too big to swallow. Social expenditures – that would have to be doubled, as in Crimea – make up only one variable in the equation. According to statistics that I have mentioned before on this blog, the Donetsk and the Luhansk regions are net beneficiaries of Ukraine’s budget; even if the Kharkiv region is a net contributor, it’s net contribution of 6,9 billion hryvnia to the Ukrainian budget is all but dwarfed by the combined net deficits related to the other two regions (14,32 billion). According to Ukrainskaya Pravda, around half of state-owned mines would face closures, even in case of federalisation.  Industries, while important for Ukraine’s GDP, are obsolete. Arguably, they require four to five times as much energy as European industries. With Russia’s steel and aluminium companies already facing a worsening situation on global markets, where Russia is supposed find the extra funds to pay for modernising these industries is anyone’s guess. While promises of raising salaries and social handouts (as Russia did in Crimea), cheap gas and investments, as opposed to the much less tangible long-term benefits of a pro-EU path is a powerful tool to increase support for Russia in the region, actually annexing it would force Russia to deliver on these promises.

3. Political costs are usually underestimated. Surely, the Russian government carried out impressive propaganda in support of its expansionist agenda, which incited broad support among the population for the Crimean intervention and the Russian president himself. But let’s also remember that one of the reasons why the annexation of Crimea pumped up Putin’s popularity is that it happened virtually without a single gunshot. This would probably not be the case in Eastern Ukraine. And even if the Russian government has, in the past months, tightened its grip on the media, surely a row of Russian soldiers coming back from Ukraine in coffins couldn’t just be hidden from the public.

All the above potentially points at a different desired outcome for Russia: a dangerously destabilised Ukraine where Russian dominance is more easily re-established after the presidential election (and possible referendum on the country’s federalisation) on 25 May. This does not require open warfare, although it does not rule it out either.

This being said let me underline again that the Russian president may not follow the rational path, or at least not the path that may seem rational to us, outsiders. The Russian political system works along its own principles, which may themselves be in constant change.

After all, ethnic Russians are reportedly killed in Eastern Ukraine. If Putin does not intervene, he may underline his carefully crafted image as the protector of all Russians, home and abroad.

Also, why would the Russian president assume that the domestic public cares that much about dead soldiers, if, in the past months, surveys have been telling him that citizens indeed support his expansionist policies? We actually cannot know how Russians would react to an invasion that is entirely different than the one in Crimea. My guess is that they would probably react differently, but this may be wishful thinking and, considering all the above, at this stage it may not matter at all.

Last, but not least, domestic power dynamics that I discussed before could also push him towards an invasion. As Valery Solovei, a professor at MGIMO reminded in an insightful commentary on YouTube last week, by taking on Ukraine, Putin upset the domestic status quo, the formerly existing internal equilibrium of the Russian political system. Just like Gorbachev did almost thirty years ago. He pushed forward, hit the wall and fell. Surely, Putin wants to avoid making the same mistake. The question is where he thinks the wall is.

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