To paint Russian leadership as reactionary, ham-fisted hardliners is to ignore a decade of methodical deployment of soft power techniques, patient construction of fifth columns, and the massive incentives Russia has not to blow the place up.
Focus on Russia’s military is misdirection; it is absolutely important, but the real benefit to brinkmanship is to make other outcomes seem downright reasonable.
In light of recent setbacks, two potential outcomes are both reasonable (when compared to the extremes of military conflict and secession) and advantageous for Russia:
1) a Crimean peninsula that is fully autonomous within the Ukrainian state (it already has semi-autonomy) and functions in practice like a British Hong Kong for Russia, and
2) a Ukrainian state that is more federalist across all regions (which makes a fast and massive shift into Europe’s orbit decidedly less likely).
The outcome in Crimea hinges on the disposition of the citizens of Crimea. While the world focuses on Russian actions in Crimea, it is crucial to understand what resonates with Crimean citizens and what dynamics prevailed before today’s headlines.
Crimea is important, as are its demographics
Don’t let its small size fool you – Crimea is important to everyone in the region, especially Russia.
It occupies an outsized role in the nostalgic history of the Russian empire, and is the leased home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
A peninsula roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts and a bit smaller than Belgium, Crimea is home to a little under 5 percent of Ukraine’s population.
Of that population, roughly 58 percent ethnically identify as Russian, 24 percent Ukrainian and 12 percent Crimea Tatar.
The Crimean Tatars are a predominately Muslim ethnic group many of whom were brutally killed or deported to central Asia at Stalin’s direction. In the mid-1980s, Crimean Tatars were allowed to begin returning to Crimea. Crimean Tatars are well organized and fairly cohesive.
Groups of Crimean Tatars would almost certainly rebel again an overt annexation by Russia. The ethnically Ukrainian population is less cohesive, but they, like many ethnically Russian Crimeans, would prefer the certainty of the former status quo to an uncertain future as a perpetual frozen conflict.
Violence, fake issues and Islamic terrorism
Crimea looks and feels different than the rest of Ukraine, and a lot of that has to do with its relative isolation.
Unlike in the rest of Ukraine, Russian and Russia-influenced media saturates Crimea’s broadcast and print media. In addition to the media, Russia has promoted soft power through the use of civil society groups, sympathetic politicians, cultural organizations, and youth movements that celebrate a common Russian identity.
While the amount of disinformation floating around Crimea is truly breathtaking, three narratives are of particular importance because Crimeans have been hearing them for years on end.
The first is that Kyiv does a terrible job of governing, and Crimea’s lack of economic development is because of Kyiv’s mismanagement.
In Crimea’s semi-autonomy, the local ruling politicians have quite a bit of power (which is parlayed into economic rents), but very little accountability because they are ultimately beholden to Kyiv.
This narrative is convincing because, one must admit, Kyiv has not been a bastion of stability and strength in leadership. The second is the idea that Kyiv and the pro-Western forces are going to oppress ethnic Russians and force them to give up their language.
When one of the first moves of the new Ukrainian government was to demote Russian language, it played right into the hands of this narrative. The third is the most dangerous, and it is fake. Crimean media and politicians have – for years on end – been raising concern that radicalized Crimean Tatars will engage in Islamic terrorism.
Civil violence is often central to shifts in power. In the West we are primed to root for protests because they depose bad leaders. But to Crimeans, Kyiv might well be that bad leader.
If Crimea is going to pull away from Kyiv’s control to full autonomy, some violence will likely be involved. Paid protests, with a bit of violence at the margins, have been commonplace in Crimea; so there is tested infrastructure for civil unrest. Prompting small groups of young men to make poor decisions is not terribly difficult to engineer. And if Ukrainian police draw blood while enforcing order, you now have a galvanizing event. And once the violence starts, deployment of Russian ‘peacekeepers’ already in Crimea starts to gain legitimacy at the margins.
Violence doesn’t guarantee Russia a win (defined as full Crimean autonomy), because there are still a lot of Slavs, both ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, that fear change. To galvanize noncommittal Slavs, Russia needs a wedge issue.
Islamic terrorism is the ultimate wedge issue. Even though this is a phantom menace, Crimeans have been hearing about the supposed rise of militant Islam among Crimean Tatars for years. As Russian involvement in Crimea escalates, it is reasonable to expect that more Crimean Tatars will be out protesting and clash with pro-Russian forces. With this backdrop, a couple of bomb explosions with a hint of Islamic terrorism would likely be enough to get the Slavs on the fence to gravitate toward any solution that promises personal security. The rest of the world could be convinced that the bombs were manufactured by Russian security services, but what matters is what Crimeans believe.
Brinkmanship and fear reframe what Is considered reasonable
Russia’s demonstrated willingness to use military force in its near abroad serves two very useful purposes in the current conflict.
The first is that one cannot entirely dismiss the idea (however contrary to Russia’s long-term interests) that Russia will conduct a full-on military invasion and annex Crimea.
This fear of military intervention provides misdirection, which distracts attention from fifth columns and indirect actors.
The second purpose is that it sets the framework for settling the crisis. By deploying military units in Crimea, Russia has established military invasion as a possible outcome.
Against this backdrop, more desirable endgames start to appear as a reasonable way out of the crisis. Russia gained much from the former status quo in Crimea.
The middle ground between the previous status quo and outright annexation is for Crimea to become fully autonomous within the Ukrainian state.
In practice, this might function a bit like a British Hong Kong, with a focus on economic rents, but with a much richer veneer of self-governance and self-determination to convince Crimean citizens that they are in fact in charge.
This is vital – the majority of Crimeans, as well as the Crimean Tatars, need to buy into it.
To that end, the frame will be protecting minority rights (a perennial issue for Crimean Tatars) and strong self-governance (which has hitherto not existed in Crimea). How does one argue against full autonomy for a semi-autonomous place that is already called the Autonomous Republic of Crimea? Deployments of Russian ‘peacekeepers’ will take on the vocabulary of peacekeeping missions – preventing violence, protecting minorities, and establishing enough security to allow self-governance and self-determination.
Naked aggression dooms Russia’s interests; no state aspires to be another Russian frozen conflict
With good reason, the deployment of Russian troops in Ukraine scares everyone.
But a military invasion with frenetic confrontation is unthinkable unless Russia has given up all hope for relations with the rest of Ukraine.
Ukrainians east and west were united when Russia tried to quietly take over the sandbar known as Tuzla Island in 2003. Ukrainians, regardless of their affinities for Russia or its culture, will not tolerate an attack on their sovereignty. If Russia is seen as an invader in Crimea, it will cease to have a meaningful partnership with the rest of Ukraine. Crimea is a beautiful and important place, but capturing Crimea at the expense of losing the rest of Ukraine would be a tradeoff that only a truly desperate Russia would make.
Even if Russia did use its military to conquer Crimea, governance becomes a huge problem because the Russian regime would lack legitimacy with large swaths of the population. A police state would be required and Crimea would quickly turn from a highly desired vacation spot (which is the source of its economic value) into a militarized Russians-only resort. This is hardly the existence that Crimeans aspire to.
William Varettoni is a former Ukraine and NATO analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. His Ph.D .dissertation is focused on security and instability in Crimea, and incorporates research conducted as a Fulbright Scholar in Crimea. William served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The views expressed are the author’s own, and rely exclusively on research conducted as a private citizen.
Deeper background on Crimean instability is available in this 2011 analysis in the Washington Quarterly.