Monday, March 10, 2014

Crimean Endgame Unclear--Russia May be Stuck, And Will Likely Lose

So Russia has obviously gone "all-in" with Crimea--the only way to really walk out with face intact is to walk out with Crimea in pocket. Sadly, Putin hasn't given himself a reasonable out without it.

But can that really happen at all?

The Crimean Referendum being rushed through looks like it may seal the deal. But that's far from obvious.

Only 58% of Crimea is Russian. This is a lot, but it's unlikely 100% are going to vote for annexation--Russia's an unattractive enough state that some ethnic Russians may opt to stay. A lot of them are from families shipped to the area by force during the Soviet Union's era, which means not everyone is going to be a die-hard.

But let's be honest: the referendum is going to show Annexation is favored, and by a lot. Russia has no problem rigging even its own elections, and will rig the heck out of these. It'll wipe its hands when it's over, with some 70-80% "favoring annexation" (anyone that wants to bet a beer that it'll fall out of that range, let me know), and look to the West and say, "see? Everyone wants to be here, so leave it be."

The most dangerous thing about Russia is (excuse my language) that the leadership may believe its own bullshit. It may not understand just how absurd its behavior seems to the West.

The West, and Kyiv, are going to look at the referendum with rolled eyes. Ukraine, particularly, is not going to pack up its bags and abandon its bases in Crimea. So after the referendum, there's going to be a standoff. And here's where the dangerous part starts.

Russia will likely put an ultimatum on Ukrainian troops to leave its "legal, sovereign territory," and threaten to open fire to drive them out and "defend" its homeland. But nobody outside of Russia is going to buy the moral/righteous argument (though they're likely to buy that yes, Russia will open fire). So when Russia does open fire, it will likely feel it has a moral high-ground, but nobody else will.

The West has been pretty weak on this matter until recently, but once Russia opens fire on the Ukrainian bases (and it will have to, in order to legitimately claim that it has territorial sovereignty over Crimea), that's going to change. Poland and the V4 are going to fight back, and drag US air power in with them. Kyiv, which has a not-at-all-laughable military, is going to hit the Russians in Crimea full-force.

It'll get messy, and Russia is honestly likely to lose. This isn't Georgia. Russia can only really deploy its southern forces to Ukraine, and those southern forces won't match up against Ukraine + the V4 (though the V4 would bring the Western forces in). Ukrainian and V4 troops are more professional and have (especially in the V4) superior tech, more plans, and similar numbers of troops.

I think the only way Russia wins this is if it somehow convinces the Ukrainian forces to pack up and leave Crimea, but I just don't see that happening at all. Otherwise, it's going to have a war on its hands that it can't win. And again, that's the dangerous part: Russia will feel its actions are entirely legitimate, that it is in the right and everyone else is aggressive/expansionist against it, and therefore may not break quickly/easily.

But I don't think it can win.
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