Putin’s potentially costly blunder in Ukraine

I’ve avoided writing anything on the situation in Ukraine, because there’s so much material being written already and I’m not an expert on the Ukrainian military. But I do want to make just a couple of quick points.

1) Russian military experts seem to have been caught up in their government’s propaganda. This is especially disappointing when it comes from usually top-notch analysts such as Ruslan Pukhov and Igor Korotchenko. In an article that was picked up and translated by Russia Beyond the Headlines, they display a frightening amount of self-delusion in arguing that Ukrainian troops are not combat-capable simply because they stayed in their barracks while Yanukovych was being deposed. To assume, as Korotchenko does, that a military that stays on the sidelines during an internal conflict will not be able to act in the event of a Russian invasion betrays a willful lack of understanding of the difference in motivation between intervening in an internal conflict and defending your country when it’s under attack. Pukhov argues that because the army is made up of contract soldiers, local Crimean boys will not fight the Russians. This is a much more serious possibility and may well turn out to be the case, but so far there are at least a number of units that are refusing to submit to the “polite people” without insignia that are surrounding their bases. For the moment (and thankfully), they have not received any orders to fight, so the jury is still out on this question.

Now from what I know, the Ukrainian military is not in particularly good condition and would undoubtedly lose to the Russian military in any serious conflict. But that doesn’t mean that it would not be able to inflict some serious pain on its opponents in the process. And I would venture that should the conflict spread to “mainland” Ukraine, the soldiers would be highly motivated to defend their homeland.

2) Some Western analysts have argued in recent days that Putin is scoring a massive victory by taking Crimea with pretty much no resistance. But it seems to me that this action was taken not as a triumphant victory but as an effort to avoid what Putin perceived to be a complete geopolitical rout in the aftermath of the defeat of Yanukovych. This seems quite short-sighted to me, as without the Russian intervention the Maidan forces were likely to fall to squabbling and would have most likely come to a relatively quick accommodation with Moscow. Now, it appears that the likeliest scenario is that Putin gets Crimea as a client state (or new province to subsidize) while permanently losing any influence in the rest of Ukraine. The majority of Ukrainians in eastern and southern Ukraine have no desire to be ruled by Putin and will support their leadership while the threat of Russian invasion persists, absent any really stupid polarizing actions on the part of said leadership. I would count this as a net strategic loss for Putin. 

The second likeliest scenario is a Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine, leading to a quite bloody and potentially long-lasting conflict with Russian troops involved. Even though Russia would be likely to win such a war, the result would be long term instability on Russia’s immediate border, with guerrilla warfare likely for some time. And Russia would have to bear the full cost of supporting Ukraine for the foreseeable future. This would be an even bigger strategic loss for Putin.

Putin has also already lost all of the international goodwill generated by his investment in the Sochi Olympics. He is gambling that EU states will fail to impose any serious penalties on Russia for its actions. Given past history this may seem to be a reasonable bet, but sending Russian troops into Ukraine is likely to be seen as a game-changer in the most important European capitals, including Berlin, London, Paris and Warsaw. While sanctions are by no means guaranteed (especially if Russian intervention remains limited to Crimea), they are more likely than one might expect given Europe’s general unwillingness to act.

For more on this, I would suggest that readers take a look at Mark Galeotti’s assessment, which parallels mine in many ways.


9 thoughts on “Putin’s potentially costly blunder in Ukraine

  1. I would argue that it is both what you say it is and an attempt to score a victory at the expense of what he perceives to be a decadent West. But I believ this incredibly reckless move has essentially put Russia’s future at risk and that when it isall over he will lose and lose big

  2. Pingback: The Crisis in Crimea | Political Violence @ a Glance

  3. “..while permanently losing any influence in the rest of Ukraine. The majority of Ukrainians in eastern and southern Ukraine have no desire to be ruled by Putin and will support their leadership while the threat of Russian invasion persists, absent any really stupid polarizing actions on the part of said leadership.”

    What do you make of the pro-Russian rallies across southern and eastern Ukraine, Dmitry? In my view, despite the Russian flags hoisted over the local administrative buildings, it’s much easier to chant for Russia than actually coming under Russian jurisdiction. The “invasion” coupled with a disgust for the new authorities has sparked off the “anti-Maidan” protests. I’m also wondering if Russia’s actively helping organize supportive rallies similar to the financial and organizational aid pro-EU/West groups in Ukraine and Russia receive.

    • I agree. The rallies are being conducted by small numbers of people. There are also lots of people who are not pro-Russian, and then there’s the vast majority who just want to live their lives in a stable environment and be left alone by the assorted political groups. I don’t have any information on whether Russia is helping to organize the rallies or not. I wouldn’t be surprised, but I also would imagine that they would happen in any case in the major eastern cities.

      • These protests are indeed minor relative to the peak of the Maidan, nevertheless, that was the peak, with protests outside of Kiev substantially smaller and roughly comparable in size to the current pro-Russian protests. Not to mention a much smaller number has thrown out the leadership in several cities.

  4. Regarding readiness, the Mig-29 unit in the Crimea has defected to the new authorities in the peninsula has at its disposal 45 fighter jets, four of which are flightworthy.

    • Has that been confirmed? I saw reports on this from RT, but I don’t trust anything they say. If it’s true that only 4 of 45 are flight-worthy, that’s pretty sad.

      • They havent defected, they were locked out of their base, later on some personnel was permitted back in to do maintenance on aircraft. The AFB is effectively neutralized, as are most Ukrainian military assets on the Crimea.

        In Western, esp American views the EU impotence and Germany’s very neutral stance are sometimes highlighted (negatively), but that part may well be the biggest blunder on Putins side, when it comes to long term fallout. A German government official in charge of Russian affairs was quoted in an interview as being “shocked” and the like at Russias conduct. Its clear that the people in charge have so far lived in some parallel reality and/or are incompetent. These events will change perceptions long term in various ways, dependence on Russian ressource imports, defence policy etc. Long term this easily looks like an own goal for Moscow, regardless of how much or how little sense it makes for them at the moment.

  5. Clearly a fail analisis.. Most Eastern and Southern Ukraine now wants to join Russia. and it will not end there once the Ukrainians notice their economy get worse and most people lose their jobs. Discussing about Future of Ukraine and Russia while ignoring its bankrupt economy and ignoring that the EU cannot carry Ukraine alone ,is doomed to fail. A second Revolution will start as soon the country economy collapse and most of them will go to Russia.

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