Games Kremlin Plays: Russia, Crimea and What Comes Next

Alexander Dmitrishin

The setting: Russia intoxicated by dreams of imperial expansion engaging in a conflict against a community of European states. Location: Crimea. It happened 151 years ago. The utter defeat of Russian armies in the war ended the status of the Russian Empire as Europe’s greatest continental superpower, held since the end of Napoleonic Wars. While we may speculate how the current Crimean crisis will work out, it is quite certain that Russia would pay a significant price for the occupation of Crimea. The question on everyone’s lips is – “why?”

The short statement of facts is necessary before moving on. The home base of the Russian Black sea fleet, Crimea is etched into Russian romantic imagination with events, such as the “heroic” defense of Sevastopol in 1854-55 against the great European-Ottoman coalition and again against the Nazis in 1941-42, as the place of general Wrangel’s last stand against the Red Army etc. So much more is the perceived injustice of Khrushev’s eccentric move to present it as a gift to the Ukrainian SSR in 1954. There have been numerous debates in Russia over the last twenty years about the legality of the Crimea transfer, and what could be done about it. It looks like as soon as the chance presented itself, Kremlin decided to deal with the question without much ceremony.


The Crimean gambit

In late February 2014, heavily armed Russian-speaking troops without military insignia entered the parliament of Crimea, disarmed the security and demonstratively raised a Russian flag in what was clearly a purely sentimental gesture. These “polite armed people”, as the Russian media named them, did not obstruct the meeting of the Crimean parliament. The deputies convened for a meeting, and gave up their cellphones in an action absolutely unrelated to the masked men with arms at the ready. Nobody saw the deputies coming out.

There is no record whatsoever of what was and is happening inside the regional parliament. Its decisions were communicated through auxiliary – predominantly Russian – media. It is said that the parliament voted to substitute the Crimean council of ministers. Most notably, the prime-minister claiming his allegiance to the new Kiev authorities was replaced by Sergey Aksyonov, a curious character with a criminal past whose party received approximately 3% of the vote in the last Crimean regional elections. Russian media was quick to renounce the “illegitimate” authority of Kiev and laud the “legitimate” authority of Crimea.

The Crimean gambit – as the Russians call it – came as a surprise to many. Yet, a serious analysis of the events leaves little doubts to the conclusion that it must have been planned already during the final days of the winter Olympics. The fluffy bear shedding a sentimental tear over the world television channels was preparing to show its bared teeth. It is hard to say whether there was a prior plan for the annexation of the peninsula to Russia, waiting in the drawers of the Kremlin establishment for an opportune moment to be carried out. Nevertheless, the swift execution of the Russian takeover of the peninsula is – especially if we contrast it to the general inefficiency of Russian’s governmental actions – seems to point in that direction. It is much harder to say, however, whether it was Putin himself who ordered the Russian-sponsored troops to occupy the parliament of Crimea if this was a relatively spontaneous lower-level action, incorporated in a pre-existent plan, whose main characteristics must have however been known by the actors.

Notwithstanding the exact micro-dynamics of the coup, it is more or less clear that the main traits of the action can be traced directly to Putin’s office. To understand why this happened is to understand the mind of one person, Russia’s one and only leader, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. The focus on the geostrategic level and the super-rationalized game theories shouldn’t deceive us: the conflict over Crimea is as personal as it is rational. It is as much about caprice as it is by grand geostrategic narratives.


The background of the Crimean invasion

After ten years of fastening the screws in the internal affairs, Putin’s power stands at its peak. The formula of this power is ‘impunity for loyalty’. Akin to a feudal system, Putin’s handpicked henchmen are given entire public domains for private enrichment in return for unabated loyalty. Smothered corruption cases – Yakunin and Serdyukov on the federal level or Boos and Tkachev on regional level – demonstrate how the system works. The maturing of this system explains the unanimous political support for Putin’s high-stake game over Crimea.

The most personal reason for the Crimean gambit is a mix of maniacal indignation and fear. The pictures of commoners profaning Yanukovich’s private zoo and galleon evoked a nightmare of something similar happening in one of the twenty residences that Putin has built over the years. Striking similarities between the regimes made it imperative to respond to this public effrontery.

The revenge was as petty as it was strategic. The trump card that Kremlin played far too often in internal politics was ‘at least we have stability here’. Destabilizing a semi-cliental regime that dared to oust its dictator was, thus, the main objective of Moscow. The blow to Ukraine was delivered to a point where it was known it would hurt the most. The strategic plan of the Russian leader at the beginning was probably still fuzzy, more of a generalized blackmail to the new authority in Kiev, reminding them that the territorial integrity of their country was in Russia’s hand. The gravity of the danger of splicing the Eastern and Southeastern regions away from Ukraine was shown by actively supporting pro-Russian rallies there. So far, the prodding in this direction brought unpromising results, as the attempts of replicating the Crimean scenario without the covert support of armed forces failed miserably. Since the corporate raiding of Crimea found some ardent supporters in the face of local business-criminal groups, it seems that Kremlin decided to hold on to it.


The project of imperial resurrection

Except for sending a shiver down Putin’s spine, the year 2014 saw the crashing of his dreams. In those dreams a reanimated corpse of the Soviet Union roamed freely on the vast steppes from Kazakhstan to Zaporizhia. Putin has famously stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, and he put a lot of effort into building a surrogate of the country he remembers. The party of power, state-corporations controlling large chunks of Russian economy, cowed media, puppet courts, harassment of opposition, and limitations on the rights of minorities – all show internal successes of Putin’s vision.

The external vector of this policy, however, was far less successful. Freed from the old ideologem of the “building of Communism” that once tied them to Russian geopolitical interests, the former Central European countries of the Eastern Bloc and some of the former Soviet countries scrammed, in a rare unity of mind, towards the European Union and the NATO. Their ranks grew larger by the year, and soon the pernicious influence of the West – as it is called in pro-Kremlin media – came to the Russian borders. With eyes full of horror, the ossifying Putin regime watched the fall of friendly dictators, some – as in Kirgizstan and Ukraine – dangerously close to home.

The collapse of the Soviet Union left Kremlin with an ace up their sleeve: a multitude of frozen conflicts. The fast and victorious Georgian war of 2008 was a demonstration of how these conflicts could be used for Kremlin’s profit. It was a spectacle par excellence. In an unexpected show of force, Kremlin reasserted its readiness to protect its interests with the use of military force.

Georgian war was a turning point in the system of geopolitical relations on the European continent, and Russia was only partly responsible for that. The response of the Western powers has done as much to bring the new order about. Stoked by the inflow of money from Russia’s resource wealth, European countries were not willing to sacrifice a lucrative source of income. The sanctions that were imposed on Russia expired in little more than half a year, which convinced Russian politicians that money are more important than politics. Nobody cared about Georgia. Why should anyone care about Ukraine?

Obviously, Ukraine is not Georgia and some response was expected. Russian military is unmarked precisely because of the wait-and-see approach that Russia adopted. The parallels with Hitler Germany proliferating over internet are not far off their mark. Surely Russia is not Third Reich, and it’s not 1939 out there. Yet, the calculation is essentially the same as that in the annexation of the Sudetes. Military action against Russia is out of question and sanctions, however harmful to the common folk, would barely scratch the power elites of the regime. In fact, the Crimean venture gave Kremlin a number of lucrative avenues to pursue.


So Why Crimea?

In a rare confluence of political rhetoric and actual meaning, Putin continuously urged Russian business and political community to domesticate their capitals. It is not a secret that many Russian politicians, while shaking their fists towards the West, somehow prefer to keep their capitals in the USA and Europe. The de-facto dependency of Russian elites on the West is a matter of some concern for Kremlin. If the threat of sanctions forces some of the elites to transfer their capitals back into Russia, their loyalties would be easier to control.

At the same time, Russian economy has been entering the period of economic stagnation. Without the torrid flow of oil and gas money, the only option for the regime to stimulate the economy is to enact vaguely unpleasant and possibly dangerous reforms. In the best traditions of petty Russian genius, the third road would be to put the blame for the economic stagnation on someone else. The story of Crimea gives a perfect avenue to pursue. Whichever sanctions are going to be imposed on Russia, they provide a perfect pretext for the regime’s scapegoating the international community for internal faults. There is a darker side of this development. Over the last decade, the authorities were carefully grooming the image of an external enemy. This dated political technology engendered controversial results, as the younger generation of Russians was reluctant to follow the Kremlin’s red herring; but the Crimean affair could give it another chance.

The Crimean campaign also dealt a surgical blow to the internal opposition. The nationalist faction, a pillar of the opposition movement, has effectively supported Putin’s move. In the long run, internecine clashes between supporters and opponents of the Crimean question could cripple the already weak opposition and play into Kremlin’s hands.

Russian government has already exploited the situation for solving some of its internal problems. While the attention of the internal and external public is turned towards the Ukrainian crisis, an internet censure campaign swept the country. In an unprecedented move, Kremlin limited access or virtually took over every major independent media resource, including such giants as LENTA.RU, Navalny blog, and Echo of Moscow.

After all, the (in)famous Potemkin villages were set precisely in Crimea and southern Ukraine: again, they are being set in as cover-up for a voluntaristic and inefficient imperial project. And again, they are being filled by real people, forced to play as puppets in an internal power game.


What Is Next?

This was, then, what Kremlin got so far out of the invasion. A more interesting question is what it counts to get in the future.

The situation is not all peachy for Kremlin. There is a considerable internal opposition to what is seen as essentially Putin’s personal campaign. A sociological service closely aligned to the state showed that 73% of Russians do not support the possible war over Crimea. The squall of negative reactions over the internet was partly responsible for the above-mentioned censuring of the internet.

Despite the aggressive external and internal propaganda, Kremlin is faced with a complex bundle of counteractive forces that it desperately tries to balance out. If sanctions are going to be more severe than Kremlin expects, the Crimean question could cost dearly. A long-term slump in the economy could be potentially disastrous for the regime that has survived in part on the promise of stability and growth.

And if Ukraine decides to fight back, Kremlin risks a protracted and potentially shameful conflict. The Russian army, although recovered from its lowest point, is archaic, badly trained, and mythically corrupt. In the case of a war, Russia will be sure to rely on the elite professional units, but these are relatively few and not enough in the case if the type of blitzkrieg tactics that we saw in Georgia fails.

Once the patriotic emotions are restrained, it is hard to see what geo-political benefits accrue to Russia. We cannot exclude the possibility that Crimea is just a clever plot to destabilize Ukraine until the way would be found to restore Moscow’s grip over the country. If so, the results so far are working contrary to Kremlin’s expectations.

Another possibility is the ardent desire of Mr. Putin to “take back” Crimea, the region that he must remember as an excellent summer camp destination for Komsomol activists … Providing the citizenry with a solid chunk of warm sea, however, would be much cheaper if instead Russia decided to rent out Antalia or Bodrum for the next hundred years (and the seaside there is better too) …

Sarcasm aside, it is obvious that the acquisition of Crimea, which will undoubtedly be recognized only by Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is a myopic move. The subsidized, corrupt region will need inflows of resources that would pale the billions disappearing into the insatiable economy of Chechnya. And except for the twenty-first and the twenty-second residences of Putin built on Jalta’s shores, the future of the region is bleak. Not only it may be facing an international boycott, but it might be also transferred back to Ukraine as soon as the regime’s ability to hold a grip over it wanes. Without doubt, this would create even greater frustrations in the Russian public than the prospect of the war. The grand design of imperial restoration proves to be, once again, incredibly blind at the level of concrete, day-to-day detail.

On the other hand, the payoff for Crimea is – and expected to be – quite severe. From the beginning of the campaign, the Russian stock market index lost approximately 10% of its value, and it is expected to plunge further. The already devaluating ruble will also take a hit, possibly losing up to 50% of its value. In addition to economics, Russia’s political positions abroad are severely compromised. The breach of international law would muffle Russia’s say on major international issues, such as the conflict in Syria. In addition, reanimated suspicions of Russia’s neighbors would necessarily lead to a more aggressive NATO stance and possible a new weapon’s race. And if Ukraine’s growing willingness to join NATO persists – which could be expected in the case of Russia’s Crimea is annexed – Russia risks losing its last geo-political buffer.


Beyond geopolitics

There is a tendency to analyze the Crimean conflict in geo-political terms, but what if geopolitics is a secondary concern of Kremlin? What other benefits this obviously dangerous venture could bring?

First, there are Putin’s dreams of making it into history books in one way or the other. No money is too much for that. Mega-projects illustrative of these dreams of grandeur are the Sochi Olympics, the FIFA championship, the Russia’s bid to join OSCE, and now the “return” of Crimea. There are more extreme snippets of this vision, including the formation of the Eurasian Union with the last allies Moscow has left, and Putin’s ramblings in a telephone conversation with Mustafa Dzhemilev that Ukraine’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union “was done with procedural faults.”

Then there is a consolidation of the regime at the critical moment when Russian economy stands at the brink of a historical stagnation. Over the last decade, the ideological idea of the Russian government was “authoritarianism for economic growth.” The last year prognosis of a long-term slump in Russian economy put an effective end to this formula. The Crimean gambit is a way to exploit external factors for internal gain. A virtual eradication of the freedom of speech is the first step on the long way of crushing internal dissent while the population is brainwashed by the state-controlled television.

At present, it seems that there are more internal than external goals in the Russian occupation of Crimea. The Crimean gambit gives a new set of cards to the power circles of Kremlin. Unfortunately, the Russian people will only get its costs. And it is likely they are not going to be low.


This article was originally published in Slovenian translation in Razpotja magazine issue 15 (spring 2014).

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