The Atlantic

Russia’s Seizure of Crimea Is Making Former Soviet States Nervous

The crisis in Ukraine has countries formerly in Russia’s orbit fearing Putin’s next moves.

A man holds the Russian flag in front of a statue of Lenin in Simferopol, Crimea on March 1. (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

For the first time since the Soviet Union’s collapse more than two decades ago, Russian military forces have moved into an Eastern European country and occupied its territory. Over 15,000 Russian soldiers are now stationed in Ukraine’s autonomous republic of Crimea, according to Ukrainian officials (it’s not clear how many of them were already in the region before this crisis), in a deployment ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to protect “Russian citizens and compatriots on Ukrainian territory.” No shots have been fired, but Ukraine’s acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, has placed his country’s military on its highest alert level to deter “potential aggression,” as the United States condemned Russia’s “invasion and occupation of Ukrainian territory” in violation of international law.

Fifteen independent countries, including Russia, emerged from the Soviet Union’s disintegration. Six of them—Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and the three Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—are in Europe, and all of them have a complicated relationship with modern Russia. Seven other countries once belonged to the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union’s military alliance in Eastern Europe. With the Cold War’s end, none of them had faced the threat of military intervention by the communist superpower’s successor state—until now. (In discussing Europe here, I’m not including Eurasian countries like Georgia, which fought a war with Russia in 2008, or the military support Russia offered Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region in the early 1990s.)


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Ukraine: what will happen now?

Events in Crimea have the potential to turn Ukraine into Europe’s worst security nightmare since the revolutions of 1989
Pro-Russian activists wave a Russian flag at a rally in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.

Pro-Russian activists at a rally in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. Photograph: Alexander Khudoteply/AFP/Getty Images

In his 14 years in power grieving the loss of the Soviet empire, Vladimir Putin has launched three wars against Russia‘s neighbours and territories formerly under the Kremlin’s domination. As a newly appointed prime minister in 1999, before becoming president on New Year’s Day 2000, he began with a war in Chechnya, brutally suppressing an armed insurrection against Moscow’s rule in the north Caucasus and razing the provincial capital, Grozny.

In 2008, the former KGB officer ordered a blitzkrieg against Georgia, partitioning the country in five days. He remains in control of 20% of Russia’s Black Sea neighbour: the territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The Russian military also controls a slice of Moldova known as Transnistria in a frozen conflict dating from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the Crimea and Ukraine, however, in the event of full-scale war, Putin has opted for a game-changer with the potential to be Europe‘s worst security nightmare since the revolutions of 1989 and the bloodiest since Slobodan Milosevic’s attempts to wrest control of former Yugoslavia resulted in four lost wars, more than 100,000 dead, and spawned seven new countries in the Balkans. Ukraine is a pivotal country on the EU’s eastern and Russia’s south-western borders. Territorially it is bigger than France. Its population is greater than those of Poland or Spain at 46 million. It has a proper military and is well armed. Ukraine was the Soviet Union’s arms manufacturing base; it remains in the top league of global arms exporters.

Ukraine’s military machine is no match for Russia’s. It has around 130,000 troops compared to around 850,000 in Russia. Its forces in Crimea are no match for the 15,000-plus men serving with the Russian Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol. Russia has more men in its western military division than there are in the entire Ukrainian armed forces. Ratios of fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, special forces units and Black Sea warships are similarly one-sided.

But Ukraine’s forces could inflict a lot of damage if forced to defend their country. With this in mind, three broad scenarios suggest themselves:

The most benign outcome is that Putin envisages a Georgia-style incursion, a brief week of creating new facts on the ground, limiting the campaign to taking control of the Crimean peninsula with its majority ethnic Russian population, and then negotiating and dictating terms from a position of strength to the weak and inexperienced new leadership in Kiev.


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US concedes Russia has control of Crimea and seeks to contain Putin

• Senior officials say goal is to avoid further Ukraine incursion
• Administration to apply economic and political pressure
Kerry to fly to Kiev after saying Russia G8 status at risk
Obama’s 90-minute Putin call: no meeting of minds

Ukraine protesters in Washington
Protesters rally in front of the Russian embassy in Washington. Secretary of state John Kerry will fly to Kiev on Tuesday. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The US conceded on Sunday that Moscow had “complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula” and announced that the secretary of state, John Kerry, will fly to Kiev in an attempt to halt a further Russian advance into Ukraine.

Senior US officials dismissed claims that Washington is incapable of exerting influence on the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, but were forced to admit that Crimea had been successfully invaded by 6,000 airborne and ground troops in what could be the start of a wider invasion.

“They are flying in reinforcements and they are settling in,” one senior official said. Another senior official said: “Russian forces now have complete operational control of the Crimean peninsula.”

Although President Barack Obama’s administration called for Putin to withdraw troops to Russian military bases on the peninsula, its objective appeared to have shifted to using political and economic threats to prevent any further military incursion.

One senior official said the major decision facing Putin was whether to “continue to escalate troop movements into other parts of Ukraine”.

“We’ve already seen the intervention in Crimea,” the official said. “It would be even further destabilising to expand that intervention into eastern Ukraine.”

The official added: “Our bottom line is they had to pull back from what they’ve already done, go back into their bases in Crimea. We’ll be watching very, very carefully of course and will be very, very concerned if we saw further escalation into eastern Ukraine.”


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