On the road to Sevastopol, Russian flags and a Russian Orthodox cross adorn a checkpoint manned by Crimea’s pro-Russian civilian defense force. A banner announces: “Where We Are, There Is Russia.”
That sentiment explains why we should all be concerned about what is happening in Crimea, even if, as seems increasingly possible, Russia’s intervention ends without bloodshed or formal annexation of the peninsula. The banner sets out the principle according to which Russian President Vladimir Putin is establishing that it is his right to intervene on behalf of Russians anywhere, anytime, and thereby determine the fates and policies of other ex-Soviet states.
Putin isn’t crazy, a born-again nationalist or ― as German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently put it ― “in another world.” He is a calculating former career KGB officer, who has just carried out an almost perfect operation, using hard power, covert tactics and disinformation to secure his goals. (I’ll get to the “almost” part in a moment.)
There is reason to believe that Putin meant it when he said in his news conference Monday that he had no intention of annexing Crimea outright, or of starting a war with Ukraine, even as he flirts with both scenarios. His aim, it seems increasingly clear, is to turn Crimea into another frozen conflict zone, dependent on Russia but nominally still within Ukraine’s borders.
Already Putin has succeeded in sending the clear message to leaders in Kiev and the capitals of other ex-Soviet states that you do not ignore Russia, or “humiliate” it, to echo his language from Monday. Once he is done in Crimea, he probably will have left a gaping wound in Ukraine’s side through which to pressure its leaders in the future.
How effectively Putin’s maneuver was executed can be seen clearly at the Belbek air force base, where unmarked Russian soldiers have seized control of the airfield and set up a perimeter around it without anyone getting killed or injured. The Russian forces are well-armed, highly disciplined and increasingly relaxed. Inside the base, the Ukrainian soldiers are demoralized. They are glumly aware that they would be no match for the Russians if they wanted to fight for the base, and they don’t. They just hope to get through quietly between now and the referendum on Crimea’s status, on March 30.
“This date should be the Rubicon after which the fate of Crimea will become clear,” said Colonel Yuli Mamchur, Belbek’s commander. He shook his head ruefully when asked who the unmarked gunmen were; Putin denied they were Russians. Pointing to their equipment, which Mamchur said was particular to Russian special forces, he added, “These are no dilettantes.”
Using unmarked soldiers has allowed Putin to evade the legal question of whether Crimea-based Russian troops have the right to deploy, rather than just travel, outside their bases. Similarly, stopping short of annexation will allow him to avoid the implications of seizing territory outright while achieving the same thing in effect. The sheer brazenness with which he has lied with a straight face about whether the troops are Russian has left the rest of the world slack jawed at his cynicism. Yet the misdirection was an essential part of his operation and, for a man with Putin’s background, standard procedure.
At the same time, the venture has not unfolded entirely as planned because the Ukrainian troops in Crimea have not played along. Using both threats and cajoling, the Russians instructed them to either sign a pledge of allegiance to the new government in Crimea or abandon their posts and leave the area. Instead, they have stayed put, at Belbek and elsewhere. Members of Ukraine’s navy are holed up on two ships at Sevastopol’s naval docks, where the mattresses they hung over the railings to absorb a threatened Russian assault were still in place today. One defection, by Rear Admiral Denys Berezovsky, the commander of the Ukrainian fleet, has so far been confirmed.
Alexei Khramov, Mamchur’s press liaison, described the Russian strategy in handling Ukraine’s military as “a blitz operation that failed.” The Russians weren’t seeking to win in a strictly military sense, he said. Rather, they wanted Ukraine’s military to change allegiance or run away. Neither happened.
The new pro-Russian leaders in Crimea have provided no evidence for their claim that 6,000 Ukrainian troops have changed sides, and it is almost certainly false.
Russia’s failure to gain the acquiescence of Ukraine’s military in Crimea helps explain the threatened deadlines for attack early in the week, which proved to be bluffs. It may also explain why the referendum has been moved up to this month, from the original proposed date, May 25. A three-month standoff between armed Ukrainian and Russian troops would be fraught with the danger of an unscripted clash.
As a whole, the Crimea narrative undercuts the notion that Putin is behaving like a radical Russian nationalist, in the usual sense of the term. His nostalgia is for the former Soviet Union and the Russian empire, which is to say the power of the Russian state. His goal is to update those imperial concepts, re-creating a zone of dominance in which the major economic and geopolitical decisions of Russia’s neighbors are made within limits set in Moscow.
Turning Crimea into another Russian republic would be a nationalist’s dream, but it is too problematic and in any case detrimental to Putin’s wider project: It would remove a point of leverage with the rest of Ukraine by creating a clean break. Nothing is certain yet, but I suspect that Putin, the former KGB agent, has opted for the covert option in Crimea: An “autonomous” territory that is bound to Russia but remains the constant object of Ukraine’s dreams and source of its insecurities.
By Marc Champion
Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. ― Ed.