‘Not about Ukraine’ – this is how former NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen characterized the war in Ukraine in a recent interview with The Telegraph. He continued: ‘Putin wants to restore Russia to its former position as a great power.’
Rasmussen’s comment rightly focuses our attention on the aggression of the Kremlin, which is leading an armed conflict in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas that has claimed over 6,000 lives. Yet his words are symptomatic of a growing problem: an analytical ‘proxyfication’ of this war. According to this logic, which is also advanced by the Kremlin itself, Ukraine per se is not of primary significance. It is seen more as a proxy in a larger ideological and even civilizational conflict cast along familiar lines: Russia vs the EU; US and NATO vs Russia; East vs West.
In one sense, this proxy logic is understandable in Europe, because the war in Ukraine affects us all. In the urgent words of the International Crisis Group, ‘the crisis in Ukraine presents one of the gravest threats to global order in the past quarter century’. Russia’s neo-imperial misadventure in the country undermines European security and ultimately targets big ideas and big ideals – among them, the very concept of state sovereignty and the values of democratic pluralism, transparency and the rule of law.
But when left unchecked, this ‘not-about-Ukraine’ thinking can be reckless. It risks not only perpetuating Western ignorance of the country but also obscuring the enormous sacrifices borne by the people of Ukraine. And as an analytical proposition, by zooming out from a map that we should be studying with a magnifying glass, it hinders our ability to connect the geostrategic dots and to understand why and where the war in Ukraine may escalate in the near term.
In attempting to connect the dots in this war, we should not forget to include Crimea in the picture. Yet ‘Crimnesia’ is widespread. Prominent International Relations pundits fail to cite the invasion of the Black Sea peninsula as relevant background to the current crisis; political actors decline to make mention of it in ceasefire agreements (cf Minsk I and Minsk II). Little attention in the West is paid to military build-up on the peninsula, much less to the plight of the Crimean Tatars, whose civil society is under attack from Russian authorities. This week Crimea’s ‘Vice Premier’ even suggested that the traditional annual mass commemoration of Stalin’s 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars, which claimed the lives of 30% of the entire population, was emblematic of a ‘cult’.
Even most of the recent ‘one year on’ journalistic features and academic roundtables prompted by the March anniversary of Russia’s land grab gave the impression that the annexation of Crimea was a thing of the past. That the Kremlin robbed Ukraine outright, with no loose ends. And that the ongoing war in Donbas has little to do with Crimea as a strategic concern.
This conventional wisdom is troubling because it is facile. It presumes a relationship between the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas that is simply sequential – a function of ‘before’ and ‘after’ – without considering whether the relationship is also simultaneous – a more complex function of ‘meanwhile’. In other words, our discourse about the crisis in Ukraine tends to frame Crimea and Donbas as two separate events when it should also be reading them as one.
Among other things, the war in Donbas is an attempt on the part of the Kremlin to help secure its territorial gains in Crimea. The fact that these gains need to be secured in the first place is often overlooked.
History is instructive here. If the past is any guide, the new de-facto Russian-Ukrainian border on the Black Sea – which runs along the Isthmus of Perekop, a stretch of territory less than five miles wide – is not sustainable. In fact, over the past five hundred years, the Crimean peninsula and the adjacent steppeland to its north have never been completely divided between competing states for more than eight months. Until now.
The Crimean Tatars, whose khanate controlled the region for centuries, sometimes called this strategic steppeland beyond Perekop Özü qırları or Özü çölleri, the ‘Dnipro fields’. The reference to the Dnipro (or Dnieper) River is telling. The Crimean peninsula is warm and arid, lacking abundant fresh water resources of its own. Even today, a year after the annexation, it receives roughly 80% of its fresh water from Dnipro sources located on this steppeland in mainland Ukraine.
Consider too that Crimea receives 80% of its electricity from thermal and nuclear power stations in mainland Ukraine around Zaporizhia, 130 miles west of Donetsk. Authorities in Crimea now talk of building an ‘energy-bridge’ from Russia’s Krasnodar region to the peninsula to end this dependency. The project’s proposed completion date: 2017.
And recall that the Crimean peninsula is not physically connected to the Russian Federation in the first place. There are efforts underway to begin construction of a bridge across the Kerch Straits, which can only be traversed by ferry at present. The proposed completion date: 2018.
Put simply: in terms of its resource infrastructure, Crimea is not very secure. Prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 1783, Grigorii Potemkin remarked to Catherine II that the ‘acquisition of Crimea can neither strengthen nor enrich you, but it will give you security’. After the annexation of 2014, the opposite may obtain: the acquisition of Crimea has temporarily strengthened the Kremlin – only as far as Vladimir Putin’s domestic standing is concerned – but it has not brought resource security. The difference has a great deal to do with the fact that Catherine seized the Crimean peninsula and the adjacent strategic steppeland along with the rest of the territory we now call ‘Donbas’, while Putin has come away with one and not the others.
Knowledge of such issues presents us with a few choices. For instance: 1) we can entertain the idea that the Kremlin executed the audacious Crimean invasion and annexation with an attendant plan to develop resource self-sufficiency on the peninsula over the long term. Or 2) we can entertain the idea that the Kremlin annexed Crimea with an attendant plan to strike a grand bargain with Ukraine and cede some control of its resource security to a state whose sovereignty it clearly does not respect. Or 3) we can entertain the idea that the Kremlin annexed Crimea with an attendant plan to wrest this control for itself, by forcing the issue of Ukraine’s federalization or even partition through hybrid warfare.
Neglecting to read the war in Donbas in light of the third option – as, in part, a pursuit of control over the ‘land pipeline’ to Crimea (the terms ‘land bridge’ and ‘land corridor’ do not suffice) – is to delimit our analytical outlook unnecessarily. This week, according to reports, Russian and Russian-backed militants continued to press on the villages east of Kyiv-held Mariupol, even firing warning shots at OSCE monitors. Taking Mariupol, the ‘sea gates of Donbas’, would make a putative ‘Novorossiia’ (‘New Russia’) pseudo-state in the region more viable. Putin first spoke publicly of ‘Novorossiia’ only weeks after the annexation of Crimea.
We should make no mistake: the Kremlin’s military aggression is about reducing Ukraine to a vassal state and weakening the European project in the process. But in theory, these geopolitical and ideological objectives can be achieved by a variety of non-escalatory means, including the maintenance of a ‘frozen conflict’ confined to the Minsk II contact line. Contemplating such things as the Kremlin’s geostrategic objectives for Crimea’s resource security, by contrast, allows us to see how a serious and continued escalation of this war is likely – and why more focused, prospective and concerted assistance to Ukraine is needed right now.