Russia Undeterred by NATO Deployments in Eastern Europe

NATO announced on Monday it will deploy reconnaissance planes in Poland and Romania to monitor the crisis in neighboring Ukraine but the move looks unlikely to deter Russia from continuing to annex that country’s Crimea Peninsula.

The alliance said AWACS early warning aircraft, once designed to counter feared Soviet nuclear missile strikes, will start reconnaissance flights on Tuesday, flying from bases in Germany and the United Kingdom.

The United States, the most powerful country in NATO, earlier dispatched a warship to the Black Sea which it described as a “routine” deployment. The USS Truxton, a guided-missile destroyer, was due to conduct training exercises with naval forces from Bulgaria and Romania, two former Russian satellite states that joined NATO in 2004.

The deployment came a day after the United States put more F-15 fighter planes on air patrol missions in the Baltics in a bid to reassure the three former Soviet republics there. American president Barack Obama also spoke with the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by phone on Saturday. Read more “Russia Undeterred by NATO Deployments in Eastern Europe”

Russia Expands Occupation, Ukraine Mobilizes Troops

Defying calls from Western powers to deescalate its intervention in the Crimea, Russia appeared to be expanding its military presence there on Saturday when Ukrainian army units were also mobilized across the country.

A massive column of Russian armored personnel carriers, trucks and support vehicles was filmed on the road from Krasnodar to Novorossiysk, on the Black Sea coast, just east of the Crimea, apparently preparing to support the invasion.

An Associated Press reporter trailed another convey in the Crimea itself on Saturday afternoon that pulled into a military airfield north of Simferopol, the regional capital.

An Ukrainian patrol plane came under fire while flying close to the Crimea’s administrative border, guards said. Read more “Russia Expands Occupation, Ukraine Mobilizes Troops”

Russia’s Crimea Invasion Rekindles American Gas Export Debate

Norwegian gas tanker
The Norwegian liquified natural gas tanker Arctic Discoverer docks at Cove Point, Maryland (StatoilHydro/Roar Lindefjeld)

Russia’s invasion of the Crimea has rekindled a debate in the United States about exporting natural gas to Europe. Proponents say that by lessening the continent’s dependence on Russian supplies, it could become more comfortable taking a stand against President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

“Russia’s neighbors need large quantities of natural gas — and, currently lacking a better option, they buy much of it from Russia,” the Republican leader in Congress, John Boehner, argued in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday. “This dependence has diplomatic repercussions,” he warned, “making them more reluctant to challenge some of Mr Putin’s arrogant actions.”

The conservative newspaper itself had earlier argued that “exporting more would be a win for the American economy and global interests.” Read more “Russia’s Crimea Invasion Rekindles American Gas Export Debate”

Annexing Crimea Could Prove Costly for Russia

Monument to Russian admiral Pavel Nakhimov, who led the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, in Sevastopol, Ukraine, August 18, 2012
Monument to Russian admiral Pavel Nakhimov, who led the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, in Sevastopol, Ukraine, August 18, 2012 (Wikimedia Commons)

If Russia annexes Ukraine’s Crimea, as the region’s parliament there says it wants it to, it could prove a costly enterprise with seemingly little benefit Russia does not already enjoy.

Lawmakers in the Black Sea region voted on Thursday to join the Russian Federation and promised to call a referendum on the Crimea’s status in ten days’ time.

Russian troops entered the peninsula in late February after Ukraine’s elected president, Viktor Yanukovich, was deposed following months of protests against his decision to pull out of trade talks with the European Union and deepen relations with his country’s former Soviet master, Russia, instead. Read more “Annexing Crimea Could Prove Costly for Russia”

Russia’s Crimea Reasoning in Historical, Doctrinal Context

Monument to Russian admiral Pavel Nakhimov, who led the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, in Sevastopol, Ukraine, August 18, 2012
Monument to Russian admiral Pavel Nakhimov, who led the 1854-55 Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, in Sevastopol, Ukraine, August 18, 2012 (Wikimedia Commons)

Media commentary in light of Russia’s recent actions in and around Ukraine’s Crimea for the most part avoids discussion of both the port of Sevastopol’s formal ownership, being leased by Russia until 2042, and Russia’s 2010 military doctrine, which gives it a mandate for operations when its citizens, assets or interests around the world are threatened. These are crucial factors to bear in mind when evaluating the evolving situation.


Sevastopol is the main commercial and military port of the Crimea and was the Soviet Union’s most important warm-water port, home to the Black Sea Fleet. Whoever controls the peninsula’s coastline and maintains a naval presence there has economic and political influence over the Crimea itself and acts as a gatekeeper to Ukrainian and Russian regions to the north and west.

Russia and Ukraine were both well aware of this following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when Ukraine claimed the port of Sevastopol. Russia immediately issued a counterclaim for its possession, asserting that the whole Crimean Peninsula was historically a Russian Black Sea outpost.

In 1997, Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement in Kharkiv under which they split the hard assets, specifically vessels and other platforms of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, fifty-fifty. Russia was also offered the option to purchase a large cut of Ukraine’s share. The Russian navy jumped on this opportunity and negotiated the transfer of additional vessels in exchange for natural gas and debt writeoffs for Ukraine.

The true desires of the states lay not in dividing fleet assets and ships but in controlling the Crimea, for historical, national and strategic reasons. Crimea’s littoral areas, coastline and ports, which provide unrestricted access to the Black Sea, and from there the Mediterranean and beyond, are the real strategic assets that Russia sought and still seeks to maintain.

By signing the 1997 Partition Treaty, Russia also obtained rights to lease the Sevastopol base and locales in the surrounding area, including Balaklava and other strategic littorals. These ports were to remain part of sovereign Ukraine for almost $98 million per year for twenty years, though Russia would be the rightful owner and user, under contract. While a steep strategic loss for Ukraine, it was a huge financial rehabilitation for the cash starved former Soviet republic, with Russia paying out via a redemption of Ukraine’s $3 billion gas debt.

According to Russia, the agreement also allowed for up to 25,000 Russian troops to be mobilized to the Crimea without prior Ukrainian notification or authorization.

In 2011, Russia renewed the lease on Sevastopol and surrounding areas for another 25 years. While Ukraine remains the sovereign landlord, Russia is the rightful tenant and in command of this prime beachfront property until 2042. At present, the ownership situation is not in dispute and is locked by contract.

Russia’s military doctrine

In 2000, President Vladimir Putin signed into law a revised military doctrine of the Russian Federation that granted the Russian military greater autonomy from a combat-operational perspective and restructured much of the command leadership to a presidential control system. The added title of “commander-in-chief of the armed forces” to the president’s, similar to the American executive model, demonstrated the change in chain of command, placing civilian control over military activities.

Most recently, an updated 2010 doctrine was approved by Dmitri Medvedev, then president, in an attempt to construct a more solid framework for army activities.

While Putin’s document came in the wake of Russian military activities in the Balkans and Chechnya, Medvedev’s 2010 update followed the 2008 war with Georgia. It embodies the contemporary outlook of Russian threat perception.

Most pertinent to the evolving situation in Crimea is that the 2010 doctrine includes numerous references to the use of Russian hard power outside Russia’s borders. It clearly indicates that Russian military forces can be deployed to protect Russian citizens, Russian-speaking peoples and interests abroad — all of which are present in the Crimea and Ukraine at large.

On top of this, it lists territorial disputes as a major threat along Russia’s frontiers, indicative in Russia’s classification of the current Crimean situation.

Russia relied on these combined rationales in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, as well as the language issue even more specifically at the outset of the unresolved, and now dubbed “frozen,” conflict in Transnistria, which began in 1992.

Today we again see this déjà vu rationale echoed as Russia seems to be readying troops to mitigate potential threats to the many Russian citizens, Russian speakers and Russian strategic interests in the Crimea.

Furthermore, the doctrine defines the Russian army’s obligations for low intensity conflict and peacekeeping. It indicates that the Russian military can be deployed to disengage opposing groups should such an operation be in the Russian national interest or in accordance with Collective Security Treaty Organization directives. This could include border dispute mediation, countersecessionist activities, counterterrorism operations and controlling mass disobedience. All of the above could be argued for in the case of Ukraine and the Crimea specifically.

Terrorism poses a chief threat to the Russian Federation and it is successfully spearheading numerous global and regional operations in this realm. The doctrine sets forth guidelines and plans to increase capabilities of special operations teams to identify, prevent, manage and recover from terrorist incidents, acts of sabotage and other irregular warfare activities.

Pro-Russian factions in the Crimea have formed what they describe as “anti-terrorist” groups. By introducing this label, it implies that terrorists may operate in the Crimea, further justifying Russia’s involvement. This shift in threat perception, from one of civil unrest to terrorism, fits snuggly under Russia’s umbrella objective of meeting threats posed by armed groups operating within its borders and broader sphere of influence.

It is worth mentioning that the preface of Putin’s original, now replaced, 2000 doctrine indicated that it was “a document of a transition period, the period of establishing a democratic state.” It also said the doctrine had “a defensive character.” Interestingly, the 2010 doctrine, in comparison, does not mention democracy nor the democratic structure of the Russian state and there is no mention whatsoever of the doctrine’s defensive character. It is not specified if Russia considers such a democratic state to already have been established or if the idea of making a democratic state is no longer relevant — or has been abandoned.

The 2010 doctrine ends with the following quote:

The provisions of the Military Doctrine may be further defined as the nature of dangers, threats and tasks related to ensuring military security and defense change, as well as in light of the broader development of the Russian Federation.

Such a catch-all clause allows for the rapid mobilization of Russian armed forces and indicates the latitude Russian decisionmakers have to implement dynamic and flexible policies in response to situations like the one now witnessed in the Crimea.

European Allies Reluctant to Sever Ties with Russia over Crimea

Vladimir Putin Angela Merkel
Russian president Vladimir Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel attend a conference in Moscow, November 16, 2012 (Bundesregierung)

Continental Europe’s three largest economies are reluctant to sever their ties with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea.

While American officials have issued strong condemnations, with President Barack Obama saying Russia is on “the wrong side of history” and the United States will isolate it diplomatically and economically if it persists in its aggression, France, Germany and Italy have been more cautious. Read more “European Allies Reluctant to Sever Ties with Russia over Crimea”

Putin Denies Troops in Crimea, Says Force “Last Resort”

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin and his defense minister, General Sergei Shoigu, observe military exercises in Anapa on the Black Sea, March 29, 2013 (Kremlin)

Breaking days of silence since his forces entered Ukraine’s Crimea last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin denied in a news conference on Tuesday that the soldiers there were Russian. The uniformed troops, who carried no national insignia but spoke Russian and drove vehicles with Russian license plates, were “local self-defense forces,” he claimed.

“As for bringing in forces, for now there is no such need but such a possibility exists,” said the Russian leader. “It would naturally be the last resort.”

Putin justified the possibility of military intervention by saying there had been a coup in Kiev and Ukraine’s legitimate president, Viktor Yanukovich, had asked for Russia’s help. Read more “Putin Denies Troops in Crimea, Says Force “Last Resort””

Crimea Invasion Putin’s Mistake? Too Soon to Tell

Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military exercise in Kaliningrad, September 26, 2013
Russian president Vladimir Putin observes a military exercise in Kaliningrad, September 26, 2013 (Kremlin)

Since Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea last week, there has been no shortage of advice from Western commentators who believe the whole enterprise is a catastrophic mistake on the part of President Vladimir Putin.

Newsweek‘s Owen Matthews believes the Russian leader “has come to believe his own propaganda — that he is has really succeeded in resurrecting the power of the Soviet Union.”

The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius also sees Russia’s invasion of the Crimea as springing “from a deeper misjudgment about the reversibility of the process that led to the breakup of Soviet Union in 1991.” Putin’s “revanchist” strategy moves the country closer to “corrupt Oriental despotism,” he writes, whereas Russia can only reverse its alleged “demographic and political trap” by moving closer to the West.

The demographic decline that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was actually halted in 2009 when the Russian population grow for the first time in fifteen years. As for its “political trap,” if that means Russia’s lack of democratic traditions, it is difficult to see how more amicable ties with the West would enable it to break out of that.

Russian public opinion does not seem altogether appalled by the notion that one man might just have plunged Europe in its worst crisis since the end of the Cold War. Rather, many Russians approve of Putin’s invasion of the Crimea which they consider an appropriate response to an imagined Western conspiracy to snitch the Ukraine from their sphere of influence. Russia’s paranoia, which goes a long way toward explaining why the country still has something resembling “Oriental despotism” in the twenty-first century, will not simply fade away when it moves into the Western sphere — assuming Western countries even want it there.

However misguided Matthews and Ignatius might believe Putin’s motives to be, neither does actually explain how invading the Crimea can objectively be considered to have been a mistake.

Mary Mycio makes a far more compelling argument in Slate where she explains how Russia would struggle to keep an independent Crimea float. The peninsula is now heavily dependent on electricity, food and water from Ukraine.

That’s why the Crimea is even a part of Ukraine. Don’t believe that myth about the peninsula being a “gift” from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. For laughs, people often add that he did it when he was drunk. That story was actually concocted during the early 1990s when Russia first started making mischief with pro-Russian separatism.

If Putin intends to annex the Crimea or install a client government there, Mycio’s criticisms will make sense. But as Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor and Wikistrat analyst, points out as his blog, there is also the possibility that Putin has occupied the peninsula to put pressure on the new authorities in Kiev. He writes, “there is still scope for a political resolution, one that will allow Putin to pull the boys back, claim victory over a cowed Kiev and a handwringing West and await the next well meaning invitation to a ‘reset’ of East-West relations.”

It is too soon to tell whether the Crimean incursion was a mistake for Russia or not. Whoever claims to know at this point is probably not actually making the argument that Putin was in error but that his behavior is morally reprehensible — which is not the same thing as being mistaken.

Putin Claims Authority to Invade Ukraine, Troops Seize Crimea

Vladimir Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin arrives in the Leningrad region to observe military exercises, March 3 (Kremlin)

Russia’s parliament on Saturday gave President Vladimir Putin permission to invade Ukraine where thousands of his troops appeared to have already seized the Crimea, the peninsula that headquarters Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.

Latvia and Lithuania, both former Soviet republics, called for emergency NATO consultations to discuss what looks to be the worst crisis in East-West relations since the Cold War ended in 1991. Such an emergency council has only been called three times before, most recently in 2012 after Syria shot down a Turkish reconnaissance jet.

Ukraine also made a request to the alliance to “look at using all possibilities for protecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, the Ukrainian people and nuclear facilities on Ukrainian territory,” its foreign minister said. Read more “Putin Claims Authority to Invade Ukraine, Troops Seize Crimea”