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[personal profile] danalwyn
Within twenty-four hours there may be a war in the Ukraine. Or there may not. It's hard to tell. At this point, most speculation is trash, and will rapidly become unhinged by events. What I have noticed is that, at least among the commentators I read, there is a fairly narrow window of possibilities to the only question that matters: How will this all end?

Crimean autonomy: One possibility is that Russia is trying to keep the status quo, that is retaining Crimea as an autonomous region within Ukraine. One thing that commentators do have right is that the Crimean peninsula is very heavily ethnically Russian. It is seeped in Russian history, Russian people, and most importantly, Russian bases. Russia has been trying to maintain control of the naval facilities in Sevastopol since the Crimean War, and shows no signs of abandoning them now. Nevertheless, for the past twenty years Russia has been mostly happy with Ukraine as nominal owner of Crimea. As long as the Russian Navy gets their bases and the people are largely left alone (and NATO is kept out) Russia has had no real reason to complain. This may be an attempt to forestall a reintegration of Crimea. After all, it's in Russia's benefit to have the region that they hold as the keystone to defending Russia's southern underbelly from the Turks to be in their control, but not actually under their authority. After all, they don't actually want to have to fix any of the problems the people there have, they just want the bases. With that in mind they may be worried that a new Ukrainian government would have tried to revoke that autonomy, and you simply can't have that. Those troops will keep Crimea safely autonomous as Ukraine learns to live with the status quo.

Crimea as Bargaining Chip: Well, if you had just lost most of your influence on a country, wouldn't you want some way to get it back? Like maybe having something they really wanted? Like part of their country?

In this model, Crimea is not so much an end as a means. Putin wants Ukraine to knuckle under to a few demands, and as a bargaining chip he's taken control of the Crimean peninsula. This is a smart idea, as there was already enough Russian presence in the peninsula that there would be no outrageous shots of Russian tanks rolling across the border, no pitched battles, no bad press, and especially nobody running a protracted guerrilla war that will tie him down for the next few decades. Everything will happen at the bargaining table where Putin will graciously offer to remove Russian troops in exchange for a few guarantees. Nobody knows what they are, but most people probably believe that if Ukraine doesn't agree, things move onto the next scenario.

Crimea as Abkhazia: Russia likes puppet client states, especially states that are full of ethnic Russians. For example, look at Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both breakaway regions were officially part of Georgia, but Russia was only too happy to recognize their secessionist efforts and defend them against the occasional Georgian attempt to reclaim them. And why shouldn't they be? The benefit of these regions is geopolitical and demographic - Russia feels that its defenses depend on buffer states and numbers. Having client states like this add more Russians to Russia, guaranteeing that they'll generate movement to Russia, create geographical depth (although against Georgia there's not much depth needed), and control key access points (it's no coincidence that two of the main cross-mountain routes into Georgia from Russia go into those two breakaway nations). But not actually owning the nation frees Russia of the necessity of fixing any of the problems that those countries have: Crimea is not a particularly prosperous region of Ukraine, just as Abkhazia isn't exactly the plum of Georgia. Additionally it provides diplomatic cover - in the same way that countries can deal with Taiwan even though Taiwan isn't technically a nation, or, well, anything really. If a friendly group of pro-Russian secessionists just happens to be together and call together a pro-Russian parliament which just happens to declare its independence of Russia, Putin might just be willing to grant them recognition, leading things to settle down into an armed stalemate. The rest of the world can ignore this situation, politely pretending that it doesn't exist and refusing to bring the matter up at parties, even if they don't recognize the new Russian Republic of Crimea. It's a polite fiction that leaves everything pretty much in the status quo, a Russian controlled Crimea, a new government without any actual power and a boatload of problems, and a lot of unhappy Ukrainians.

Crimea as Tinderbox: This is probably the least likely, but the most worried about scenario because it's almost the most dangerous; the idea that Russia is moving into Crimea as a prelude to outright annexation. There's some evidence to the idea - Putin seems to believe that Russians should live in Russia, and there are Russians in Crimea and the eastern part of Ukraine. Having already lost both western and central Ukraine from his influence, Putin may be deciding to give up on Ukraine entirely and forgo any sort of benefit that he could get from the latest upheaval. Instead he may be attempting to expand Russia by claiming Crimea, and possibly the eastern regions of Ukraine, as part of his country. After all, the idea may not be unpopular, although nobody has ever tested how much people want to be part of Russia (especially given the proclivities of the Russian elite to run away with anything mobile), but then again it might not be worse than Ukraine's relatively ineffective government. In this case Russian troops roll right across the border. Ukrainian troops rally and move back to the borders of where they think they can hold - where the Russians stop. Fighting is minimal, but at the end of the day Russia controls part of Ukraine, and claims it as part of Russia.

All hell is likely to break loose, diplomatically speaking. Not war, but no country has been allowed to annex anything without UN arbitration for decades. Recent attempts were either resisted, like Iraq in Kuwait, or moved into arbitration, like the perennial mess on the Ethiopian-Eritrean border. If you thought that reaction to the US attack on Iraq was extreme, the annexation of Crimea will start a tremendous firestorm that will take years to die out. Not that it will impact most people's daily lives, but if anything it will reinvigorate resistance to Russia. It will also knock over a whole bunch of dominoes that will slowly begin falling. Nobody knows where those dominoes will land - especially not Russia. And what does Russia gain? Realistically, not much. Unrecognized puppet states are much easier to manage than out and out annexation. Not that Russia is going to be deterred by public reaction, but if Putin wants to be on the losing side of a new Cold War, this is the best way to get it started.

Crimea as Kuwait: If Crimea is Kuwait, than Ukraine is Iraq, and you know what Iraq needs? Regime change.

This is hands-down the most dangerous scenario, and probably nearly impossible. Not many people are mentioning this as probable. Only an idiot wants to see it. In this scenario Russia rolls across the border, and this time they don't stop. The Russian air force executes hundreds of strikes on military and (inevitably) civilian targets throughout Ukraine, motorized rifle brigades give photo shoot options as armored vehicles crunch across barricades, sweep through Ukrainian villages, and prop up a puppet government in their wake. The Ukrainian army folds ... sort of. Unable to match the Russians in the field, my suspicion is that they retreat to the cities - and there start a fight that makes the battle of Grozny look like a day at the fair. Kiev is possibly leveled in block-by-block fighting, or some other equally photogenic city. Fighting rages not only during the invasion but throughout the occupation, when it becomes apparent that the new Russian-speaking, Russian-backed government is more unpopular in Ukraine than the one we installed in Iraq. Even without NATO intervention (in which case this scenario goes off the rails so fast it becomes unpredictable) things could get messy in far too many ways.

For one thing, even though this isn't supposed to matter, all the victims will be white - which will play very interestingly in the US and Europe. For a second, Ukraine is dangerous. Not only is their military large, and with their backs to the wall, frighteningly well equipped (at least compared to the normal guerrilla fighters that regime change operations face), but they have industrial powers that most other countries did not. Even a simple accident, let alone a deliberate one, at an aging Ukrainian nuclear reactor could render large portions of Russian-speaking Ukraine, or possibly even large swathes of Russia, uninhabitable. Foreign outcry would be tremendous, and with it foreign money - the CIA could make Russia's life hell with even a billion dollars of weapons shipped to Ukrainian partisans every year. The Russian military would have to buckle down and engage in counterinsurgency, something they're not that good at, in front of a press that is already hostile, and in a way that removes their military from other borders. Moreover, once they're in it, they're committed. If the first troops that Russia sends in meet a warmer than expected welcome they can't just back up and apologize - they're in it for the duration. Putin can no longer back down, and he may not want to be committed to something without an end.

This is the worst option because it leads to war, immediate war, that could possibly drag all of the world down with it. For that reason, most people rate it as unlikely. Russia's position as villain of the year is already cemented, they don't need to make themselves the target of everybody. Then again, Putin's playing a very different game than everyone predicted so far ...

That being said, nobody really knows what's happening next. The current bet seems to be on some level of unpleasant, realpolitik sanity prevailing, but really? Sanity has usually been the first thing to go in these affairs, so hang onto your hats and don't trust in it too much. But still, so far Russia tries to keep things under control, so don't prepare for the end of the world quite yet.
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November 2016

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