by Catherine Schuknecht
International Institute, April 15, 2014 — At a panel discussion on April 7, Daniel Treisman (professor of political science, UCLA) joined Robert English (associate professor of international relations, University of Southern California) and Edward Walker (executive director, Program in Eurasian and East European Studies, UC Berkeley) to discuss rising tensions in Ukraine and the growing threat of Russian military intervention. The event was cosponsored by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies and the Burkle Center for International Relations.
“The crisis in Ukraine is still extremely dangerous,” said Edward Walker, warning that “the odds of a Russian invasion before Ukraine holds presidential elections on May 25th are still quite high. . . . And if Russia does invade, it will be catastrophic.”
“Although Russia managed to take control of the Crimea without provoking a full-blown war, the political situation [remains] very volatile in Kiev and it’s even more so in the eastern regions of Ukraine” he continued, “where pro-Russian separatists in Khakhiv, Donetsk, and Lugansk seized regional administrative and security service buildings over the weekend [April 5–6].”
Some 40,000–50,000 well-trained and well-equipped Russian troops are presently massed along the eastern border of Ukraine, while Russia continues to press Ukraine to create a federative structure that would reduce the power of its central government. “If [Russia] succeeds in provoking significant violence,” remarked Walker, “I think Putin will send the troops in.”
He noted that Russia was facing a strategic problem that it was unlikely to tolerate: without a Russian-controlled land corridor between Russia and Crimea, it will be unable to maintain the economy of the latter, which depends on Ukraine for electricity, natural gas, water, and food. Russia also relies on Ukrainian enterprises located in eastern and southern Ukraine for critical military supplies, including parts for Russian ICBMs and helicopter engines.
The threat that a western-oriented Ukraine could become a member of NATO is Russia’s primary security concern, said Walker, claiming Russia would do its best to prevent the emergence of a stable pro-western government in Ukraine. “Moscow is playing a long game in this respect, one with many tools of pressure at its disposal, military and political,” he remarked.
In November 2013, the Ukrainian government announced that it would abandon a planned agreement with the European Union, triggering widespread protests that eventually led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.
From left: Daniel Treisman (UCLA), Robert English (USC) and Edward Walker (UC Berkeley). (Photo: Catherine Schuknecht/ UCLA.)
After purportedly spontaneous pro-Russian protests broke out in Crimea — a peninsula in southern Ukraine where the Russian navy has a major base — Russian soldiers in unmarked uniforms and unmarked Russian military vehicles entered Crimea and took control of Ukrainian government buildings and military bases there.
The local “pro-Russian government” then quickly conducted a referendum on the peninsula becoming part of Russia, after which Russia immediately annexed it. Neither Ukraine nor any western government has recognized the annexation as legal.
The decision to annex Crimea seemed to have been made by a very small group of close Putin associates with security backgrounds, noted Daniel Treisman. More or less an improvisation, the decision was taken quite suddenly after the collapse of an agreement negotiated between Yanukovych and the leaders of the Ukrainian opposition.
A new survival strategy for Putin?
Slowing economic growth in Russia has been compounded by foreign investor doubts and capital flight caused by the annexation. These circumstance make it impossible for Putin to continue his previous strategy of remaining popular based on rapid economic growth, said Treisman. Instead, the Russian leader seems to have committed himself to a new political strategy of “emotional anti-western nationalism.”
Treisman claimed the strategy was working in the short run, but doubted it would succeed in the medium-to-long run. Although Putin’s popularity has previously risen sharply at times of perceived external threat, Treisman used data from Russian public opinion polls to show that these boosts in popularity were only temporary.
If Putin’s current appeal to Russian nationalism fails, Treisman warned it was possible that the Russian president would be tempted to find additional internal enemies and engage in diversionary tactics outside of Russia in order to rally his base.
Should the Russian leader feel pressured to take drastic action, whether military or political, Treisman believed such action could lead to a rapid and dangerous intensification of the conflict in Ukraine.
The limits of Western influence and options
In the wake of the annexation of Crimea, western governments are facing the fact that they have little leverage over Russia. “The stark fact is that NATO has virtually no ability to project power to Ukraine’s Eastern boarders,” observed Walker. The collective defense organization would be unable to deter a ground invasion of either eastern Ukraine or the two smallest NATO member states that border Russia — Estonia and Latvia.
Although the speakers agreed that U.S. involvement in the crisis was essential, they differed on their suggestions as to what form this involvement should take.
“The West has no option but to try to deter Russia from invading [Ukraine by] using diplomacy and the threat of economic sanctions,” asserted Walker. Although the sanctions imposed on a limited number of Russian officials have been ineffective to date, he believed that sanctions could become significant if they were increased in response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Robert English agreed that individual visa bans and asset freezes to have had little deterrent effect, while trade and investment restrictions would meet resistance from U.S. companies with large investments in Russia, such as Exxon and Boeing.
Another proposed solution — the idea of reducing European dependency on Russian natural gas by substituting Russian with U.S. supplies — is both politically and geographically impossible, argued English.
In a detailed analysis that laid to rest the feasibility of such a “substitution,” English estimated that the combined cost of the export terminals, container ships, transportation, permits and legal costs required to deliver U.S. natural gas to Europe would be roughly $150 billion. Moreover, it would take over five years to build the infrastructure to deliver the gas, which would be considerably more expensive than Russian supplies.
Resurrecting the Ukrainian economy will, moreover, be a “colossally expensive, fiendishly difficult, and decades-long project,” explained English. Ukraine is currently suffering from serious economic corruption at the highest levels, as well as a high level of debt to Russia for subsidized gas (the price has been discounted some 30–40 percent below market prices).
Walker pointed out that Russia had already raised its gas prices in Ukraine by 80 percent on April 1, and that Western taxpayers were unlikely to support economic assistance to Kiev if it simply became a subsidy for Gazprom.
Additional economic sanctions and pushing for Ukrainian membership in NATO, argued Walker, would guarantee a hostile Russia determined to resist what it views as western encroachment on its borders. The United States “should try to use the current crisis to negotiate an overarching security arrangement for post-Cold War Europe that all parties can live with, including Russia — something that I actually think we should have done long ago,” he remarked.
The security framework proposed by Walker would include military neutrality for Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus (with no foreign troops on their territory) and the preservation of NATO membership for Latvia and Estonia, but with no deployment of NATO troops in either country.
A new Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe could institutionalize limits on both NATO and Russian forces along the borders of these countries. In addition, NATO would agree not to add new members that share a border with Russia, including Finland and Sweden. “The result would be a buffer zone between NATO and Russia that would reduce the risk of war and increase security for all parties,” argued Walker.
Although it will not be easy to negotiate such a broad security arrangement, Walker insisted that the annexation of Crimea should not prevent Western governments from trying to do so. Such an agreement, he explained, would both lower the risk of war and ease Russia’s determination to destabilize Ukraine.