Russia’s Ill-Prepared Invasion
Interview with Andrew Wilson, University College London. Interviewer: Adam Reichardt
ADAM REICHARDT: The Russian aggression in Crimea has been strongly condemned in the West with the United States, United Kingdom, France and others suggesting even a boycott of the G8 summit in Sochi. Do you feel that the Western response so far has been adequate?
ANDREW WILSON: So far, indeed yes. Some would say that Russia should be kicked out of the G8 altogether. For those who want the lines of communication open, perhaps that’s too strong a measure, but the G7 can meet on its own without Russia.
There are economic measures that also can be taken. Particularly in regards to the Nord Stream – the undersea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany – which gets an exemption from the third energy package at the moment. That must be put into question. Russia has been recently campaigning quite successfully in the Balkans to get exemptions for the South Stream project from European law. The EU should insist quite strongly that will not be the case. I know some would even want to stop the South Stream project altogether. Visa-free travel negotiations should also be suspended. These are some things that can be done to hurt Russia, maybe not enough. At the moment, Russia seems to be riding on the assumption that we will simply make loud, diplomatic protests.
There were reports that apparently Putin has agreed to the possibility of an OSCE observation mission. Do you see any hope for this, or is this just buying time for more military preparations?
It really depends if this means on the ground and if it includes going to Crimea? Access to Crimea is a serious question at the moment.
There are two aspects here. One is a general OSCE mission to get some background information on the situation. Russia has constructed the flimsiest of excuses for its intervention. So an actual fact-finding mission could be quite dangerous for Russia. It could expose the mythology of Russian citizens and the Russian language under serious threat. Only one Russian citizen has been killed during the current crisis in Ukraine, and he was shot by a sniper in Kyiv.
You also could have the OSCE HCNM (High Commissioner on National Minorities) involved in the mission to examine the situation with the Crimean Tatars. They are now in great danger, despite that fact that recently things seemed be going in their favour. What’s more, the 70th anniversary of the Deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944 is coming up in May. This could be an added flashpoint. So in general, an OSCE fact-finding mission would be a good idea if it was combined with the OSCE HCNM mission. I think it is already in the planning phases.
What do you suspect is the endgame here for Russia? What are the geopolitical goals of this intervention beyond the so-called protection of Russian citizens who are in danger?
It all happened so quickly that it is difficult to say. I think maybe the Russians haven’t really thought out the plan or the implications themselves. You can sketch some scenarios on what might happen with Crimea. The most likely I guess is creating a new Transnistria-style situation; Russia doesn’t annex the territory, but declares it independent through an unrecognised referendum. It will be unrecognised because it’s not constitutional under Ukrainian law where a referendum has to be held throughout Ukraine.
Will Russia go even further than Crimea?
There were some weekend demonstrations in the east supporting Russia, which seems to be coordinated in some way. Does that mean that Russia will use eastern Ukraine in the same way that they use Crimea as leverage over the authorities in Kyiv?
I don’t think that Russia has really thought this through. A lot of what is happening really doesn’t make sense for Russia in the long-term. Crimea is one thing. Many would support Russian rule, but we need to test that properly, and certainly not the Crimean Tatars or many Ukrainians there; but further north, in eastern Ukraine, the situation is completely different.
Russia has a whole array of levers it can pull to apply pressure on the authorities in Kyiv. That is why a swift resort to intervention in Crimea was in some ways surprising. It looked like Russia was playing a longer-term game, stirring up a bit of trouble with economic pressure and waiting for the new government to collapse.
Do you think Russia rushed into this intervention?
I don’t know if they are fully prepared for the backlash that will follow. What will Kazakhstan think about the Eurasian Union now? If the Crimean Tatars are repressed, how will that affect Russia’s relations with the Islamic world and with its own Muslims? I have a feeling that Russia has not thought this all through.
The economic situation, beyond the military intervention, in Ukraine is incredibly dire. What can the West and others do to help Ukraine with immediate economic support?
Well, the problem here is that the need for economic support is immediate. There is no money in the state coffers. The currency is sliding. The IMF wants an economic reform programme in Ukraine before it starts lending any money. This has been sketched out, but it isn’t fully in place. The need for money may be quicker than many realise.
If Ukraine’s economy collapses, what would the scenario be then?
Well, the economy faces severe risks, but it is still functioning on most levels, even though parts of the banking system are not operating the way as it should. The government is in place. We could move quickly. The one piece of good news that Ukraine does have is that its repayment schedule is favourable. The payments start to accumulate in May, but aren’t heavy until August. Since the Ukrainian economy has under-performed so spectacularly in the past, if the right measures are in place, it could recover quite quickly.
So there are opportunities, but it’s quite grim at the moment.
The risks are real and high, but ultimately it comes down to the external environment, which means Russia. Russia can add severe economic pressure if it wants to. That is pretty dangerous, however, even for them in the longer term. Russia has already taken a hit in their currency and their markets.
The military intervention in Ukraine is not going to be easy for them, either. This isn’t going to be a walkover occupation – even in Crimea, with the Crimean Tatars.
Hence, the dangerous game that Russia is playing may very well backfire, both in economic terms and in strategic terms.
Andrew Wilson is a Reader of Ukrainian Studies at University College London.
Adam Reichardt is the editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe