russia troops ukraine crimea

'Russia invades Ukraine!' That was the alarming call issued on 28 February by Arsen Avakov, Ukraine's interim interior minister. Certainly the behaviour of the highly coordinated 'citizen's militia' at airports, key infrastructure and the Crimean parliament suggested he was right.

Militias are usually amateurish. They dress like shoppers at a military jumble sale, and they often lack a coherent command structure. The well-armed troops around Simferopol didn't match that description at all. And any remaining ambiguity dissipated when Russia's upper house voted unanimously to deploy more troops to Crimea in response to a request by Sergei Aksyonov, Crimea's new pro-Russian leader.

So what is Vladimir Putin is up to this time? The answer is trickier than it appears.

That's because it's tempting to take the line that Putin is a bully driven by Russian chauvinism; a man who seeks to emulate Peter the Great by recreating an empire where the USSR once stood.

This is understandable. Russian behaviour often seemingly vindicates that characterisation. However, it is cartoonish to assume that Putin is simply a little tsar. And to divide the main players in the latest Ukrainian imbroglio into pro-Western 'goodies' and pro-Russian 'baddies' is downright dangerous, because it gets Russian motives very wrong indeed.

The roots of Russian conduct

Russia’s 'hardline' behaviour stems directly from its experiences after the Cold War. As the leading republic of the former Soviet Union, Russia lost a great deal of territory and resources and a unifying national idea. The breakup also created a sizeable ethnic Russian diaspora population, much of which was subsequently mistreated. When Western suspicions of Russia lingered, Boris Yeltsin rebalanced from an initial 'friends with everyone' foreign policy to a more muted multipolarism. Domestic pressure, economic mismanagement, war in Chechnya and widespread corruption also reinforced a line of thinking favouring hard-nosed pragmatism over plastic principles.

Hence, well before Putin came to power there was already broad consensus on Russian interests. Importantly, it encompassed liberals as well as nationalists. And once Putin turned Russia into a petroleum powerhouse, he had the wherewithal, as well as the will, for a bolder policy line.

The situation in Crimea is certainly a reflection of Russia’s recent assertiveness. Yet it is equally a reflection of its insecurity. Moscow worries obsessively that Ukraine will be granted NATO membership. And although NATO sometimes mulls membership for Russia itself, there have always been strings attached. In fact, the West's deal for Russian entry is unlike that for any other member: it can have a voice, but no veto.

To illustrate Moscow's wariness about NATO, former prime minister and foreign minister Yevgenyi Primakov once offered a fascinating counterfactual.

Imagine, he said, that the Cold War ends – and the USSR wins. Germany reunifies and joins the Warsaw Pact. France and the UK follow suit. Moscow reassures Washington that enlargement is not aimed at them, but that the US can't join yet on equal terms. Then Mexico petitions for membership in the Warsaw Pact. And then Canada. Wouldn't America, Primakov wondered, feel insecure under those circumstances?

None of this excuses Russia's heavy-handed behaviour. Its emphasis on material interests without a polished normative narrative accompanying its decisions sometimes appears reminiscent of another age. But Putin must play the hand he has been dealt. And though globalisation has made it fashionable to view territoriality as redundant, it should now be clear that old-school geopolitics is alive and well in Crimea.

Russia's Crimean strategy

Russia’s Crimean move is part of a broader strategy to preserve sub-regional primacy. It is intended for both international and domestic audiences. Its main aspect is institutional: to construct political, economic and security architecture in and around the former USSR. It includes the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which Russia dubiously touts as a military-security counterweight to NATO. It also incorporates the CIS, Putin’s Eurasian Union, various energy trading clubs, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

While comparatively little has yet come of them, Putin's intention is for these institutional carrots and sticks to bind neighbouring states closely to Russia. Ukraine, as an energy transit corridor and with a large manufacturing base, is an important part of that vision. By intervening in Crimea, Putin's calculation is that it will show any vacillators how far he is prepared to go to secure Russian interests.

An equally important aspect of Russian strategy is to use the West’s own logic against it. This makes it look hypocritical and ineffectual, and highlights how malleable 'global' international legal and human rights rhetoric can be. Putin’s justification for intervening in South Ossetia in 2008 was the Responsibility to Protect. Similarly in Crimea, Putin is pushing the line that he is protecting ethnic Russians from right-wing nationalists. His message is simple: if the West can back a coup against a democratically elected government, Russia can too.

How will the West respond?

Moscow's move certainly generated tough talk. Barack Obama spoke again of a 'red line' (he'd previously invoked one against Assad in Syria), and warned Russia of 'costs' if it were crossed. David Cameron announced there was 'no excuse' for any outside intervention in Ukraine, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen scheduled an emergency NATO meeting. Carl Bildt, Sweden's foreign minister, was perhaps most candid. He tweeted that Russia's intervention in Crimea had the immediate aim of creating a 'puppet pro-Russian semi-state'.

Bildt is probably right. Even so, there's not much the West can do because Putin is in a strong position. Russia's Black Sea Fleet is in poor shape, but there are 25,000 service personnel on the ground under the terms of the 2010 agreement with Kiev, in addition to an estimated 6000 recent arrivals. Crimea is strongly pro-Russian and many Russian personnel retire there. NATO will certainly seek to avoid any military confrontation with Russian forces. A quarantine of Crimea would be difficult to construct or enforce, as would a major sanctions regime targeting Moscow.

Is there a solution? Historical context plays a role here, but it tends to colour perceptions rather than offering objective lessons. Russia's plight after the Cold War taught us much about great power retrenchment, and how it might be better managed in future. But Western elites have struggled to think strategically about great power revanchism since liberalism's apparent triumph in 1991.

Unfortunately, many analysts shy away from understanding Russia's security concerns because on closer inspection they start looking somewhat legitimate. This in turn suggests the US and the EU have more than a little responsibility for the current Ukrainian shambles.

Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner.