Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why Did Putin Invade the Crimea?

The obvious answer is in order to annex it, as he has done. The question is not about end but about means.

Invading with military force, holding a referendum under the guns of Russian troops, and announcing a result reminiscent of the results of Soviet "elections," has consequences that one would think Putin would prefer to avoid. My guess is that economic sanctions will not hurt him very much. The major costs have to do with the responses of other powers, in particular European powers. The two obvious ones are to reduce their dependence on Russian gas, which will reduce Russia's income from selling it, and to strengthen their military to be better able to respond to any future aggression.

The alternative, assuming that a sizable majority of the population of the Crimea wanted to become Russian, would have been to push for a referendum under Ukrainian rule with outside observers and win it. At that point, if the Ukraine refused to accept the outcome, Putin would have had a much stronger case for military action, if not in international law, which recognizes no general right of secession, at least in international politics and public opinion.

Several possible explanations of why he did not follow that policy occur to me:

1. He did not believe the Ukraine would be willing to hold such a referendum.

2. He was playing to a domestic audience, establishing his image as a forceful defender of Russians and Russian influence.

3. He plans to follow up by further aggression against the Ukraine, perhaps conditional on the western reaction to the first step.

If the final alternative is correct, it is hard to see any plausible response other than to permit him to defeat the Ukrainian military and replace the Ukrainian government and/or annex additional Ukrainian territory, or to support the Ukrainian military with European and U.S. troops. Neither looks very attractive.


jdgalt said...

I believe the answer the Volokh people came up with:

Having a "live" territorial dispute with Ukraine guarantees that NATO won't let Ukraine join, and thus screw up Putin's plan to recreate the Soviet Union. This is why there are already Russian troops occupying parts of Georgia and Moldova.

Sigis said...

Only 40% Crimeans identify with Russians, so the outcome of genuine voting is unclear.

page 8:

Anonymous said...

Three important reasons:

1) The Crimea is valuable territory that Putin wants, and is within easy reach.

2) The Ukrainian military is weak compared to the Russian Army.

3) The Ukrainians were stupid enough to listen to President Clinton and disarmed all their nuclear missiles by 1996.

Or in simpler terms, because he can.

Hugh Small said...

Why did he invade? Because Putin, ignorant of history, made an understandable mistake. Russia's Tsarist expansion (which swallowed the Crimea in 1783) was driven by 'geographic determinism' and the dominant economic role of agriculture rather than by calculation. Same with the Soviet continuation of that expansion. Today, annexation makes no economic sense, and the main 'costs' to Russia will be the trouble caused by Crimea's children who will not understand why their parents gave up the chance of complete independence just to hide behind Russia's skirts from the Ukrainian bogeyman. See
Hugh Small
author The Crimean War (Tempus, 2007)

Unknown said...

Because he can!
The european response is at the lowest common denonimator.
(i.e. the country with the most trade to lose)

Anonymous said...

i think talking about an invasion is just buying into the white house talking points.russia has had legally up to 25k troops and other military assets in crimea since the fall of ussr, not going into the background of how crimea got part of ukraine in the first place(chruscev was ukrainian and liked to drink).also the invasion as we have seen was met with consent of the invaded with zero far as i can tell russia's policy has allways been reactive towards the west since the fall of the union and the aggressor since the fall of the union was the west unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious whether you think NATO is a stabilizing or destabilizing force in the exUSSR. On the one hand, the 3 exUSSR countries already in NATO are presumably safe. On the other hand, the possibility of other exUSSR countries joining NATO may be motivating Russia to be more aggressive than it otherwise would be.

Tibor said...

Regarding the referendum, I looked at the numbers and there are two possibilities,

a) The attendance indeed was 80% of voters (or more) in which case to reach the result of 97% (and assuming all of the Russians in Crimea who make up 58% of the population voted and voted unanimously) about half of the non-Russians in the territory would have had to have voted and voted almost entirely for Russia.

b) The attendance was lower than 80%. In that case the number of non-Russians who voted could be lower while reaching the same result.

In any case, either the 80% is a made up number while the result of 97% of those who voted is indeed true (since a lot of the opposition pledged to ignore the referendum entirely, si it might be possible), or 97% is made up. In any case it seems to me that even if it were not manipulated with the result would have (de jure) been the same...albeit with less impressive numbers, which probably makes it politically weaker.

I was thinking around the same lines as your options 2 and 3. But no. 1 I don't find likely, because Crimea still was somewhat independent with its own parliament and local government. They could have held the referendum even without new Ukraine government's consent and if it ended up in Russia's favour, Putin would have a much stronger claim for a military action (like you said).

It seems to me that supporting the Crimean locals financially and by other non-military means whould have lead to the same result but with a much better world-wide recognition. So either he is testing the reaction of the "West" to agressive military actions, or is trying to win the crowd at home (but I am not sure he really has to do that given the political system in Russia), or both. And if he wants to test the reactions then faster annexation of Crimea through these agressive means comes as a free bonus. I also read something about his speech where he claimed that Ukraine and Russia is one nation and Russia comes from Ukraine (technically true, because of Kyjev Russia...but with the same logic, England belongs to USA) so maybe he plans on advancing further.

Those EU (and US) sanctions seems stupid to me. We are hurting ourselves by refusing to trade oil while it will only hurt ordinary Russians, slightly reducing their living standards...and making them even more dependent on handouts from Putin.

Daublin said...

Two thoughts.

First, your story about European retaliation sounds very weak. They seem unlikely to reduce their oil usage further, and anyway, oil is a global market. Furthermore, a big military only matters if Europe ever uses it, which seems unlikely. The memory of the World Wars still lingers among the European voters, and besides, I doubt they care about one Slavic country versus another. Putin seems to face little real opposition other than general decency.

Second, we have a real-life stress test for Bryan Caplan's case for pacifism. He would argue that Russian rule is likely to be about the same as Ukranian rule for the local populace. Therefore, shouldn't residents of Crimea just roll over and given in and not even ask for external military support? It's a defensible position, but it seems rather strange. Suppose Russia continues to annex one bit of land after another. Does there never reach a point where it makes sense to fight back?

Bruce said...

If European sanctions are still annoying the Russians enough to make them cut off natural gas supplies nine months from now, it will be a bad winter for the European poor.

Roger said...

Possible explanation 4) Putin does not really want international acceptance of Crimea as Russian, but instead wants Crimea regarded as a disputed territory. His real goal is to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, and he knows that will never happen as long as Crimea is disputed.

Ryan said...

I think there's a third military option other than (1) letting Putin take over Ukraine and (2) Supporting the Ukraine with U.S and European troops.

Why don't we give Ukraine its nuclear arsenal back and add missiles capable of delivering nuclear warhead to Moscow or another sensitive Russian target. Ukraine is unlikely to use nuclear weapons unless provoked, but the threat of their use should be enough to deter a Russian invasion.

I realize this would be wildly politically unpopular, but it seems to me low cost way of deterring further Russian aggression (assuming the weapons are never used).

David Friedman said...

Where is the Ukrainian nuclear arsenal? I assumed it had been destroyed.

If, as I understand it, the Ukrainians gave it up in exchange for a guarantee of territorial integrity, then giving it back would make perfect sense, logically speaking. But I doubt it would be politically viable, and saying it was about to happen might trigger a Russian invasion.

Ryan said...

According to this article, they were destroyed. Still, we (the U.S.) could give Ukraine replacement nuclear weapons from our arsenal. It seems only fair.

And maybe we could give the weapons to Ukraine secretly, (Iran-Contra style) and only announce the transfer after it is done, so Russia doesn't invade?

If I was the leader of a small country, the lessons I would take, thus far, from the invasion of Ukraine are: (1) get nuclear weapons as quickly as possible, (2) never give them up, and (3) Do not count on the U.S. to keep its promises, especially if doing so will be costly.

Between (1) not doing anything, (2) fighting a ground war, and (3) giving Ukraine nuclear weapons, option 3 is the most appealing to me. But I'm probably atypical. And distributing the weapons is probably a violation of the Treaty on Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and a host of other international laws, meaning this administration will never do it.

Tibor said...

Ryan: While Putin's actions can hardly be legitimate, it is hard to know what can be expected of the new Ukrainian government. It can dissolve the way the one that came up after the "Orange revolution" did for example. Secretly shipping nuclear weapons there would be a very risky bet on one card. Also, if the situation gets tough, I think it makes little difference whether you ship in your nuclear arsenal (and make it publicly known thereafte) or simply threaten to use it yourself under some conditions. The other option having the advantage of giving you more space to maneuver in. Also, the chance of the Russian intelligence discovering the shipments before they arrive is quite large I think. And that maybe is even more likely to trigger their agression than an open shipment.

Anonymous said...

maybe putin didnt really know what he was doing, maybe he was just muddling through and seeing what happened.

we should not presume that putin is a mastermind, he, like OBAMA (HOPE AND CHANGE) probably was just as surprised at the quick turn of events as anyone else when yanakovich left.

Ted Levy said...

"Why Did Putin Invade the Crimea?"

To get to the other side?

Will McLean said...

In the event of option 3, NATO has a third option. They could support Ukraine not with troops but with arms. After all, the ex-Warsaw Pact members of NATO still have a lot of the the same ex-Warsaw Pact equipment the Ukrainians are already trained to use.

David Friedman said...


The problem is that Ukraine is smaller than Russia, and newly raised troops are likely to be less competent than an existing army.

That said, I don't really know what the balance of forces would be.

Will McLean said...


Russia has a much larger military than Ukraine, but they also have a lot of other borders they don't want to denude of troops. So the absolute numbers don't tell the whole story.

It's my understanding that Ukraine has been more constrained by funding than manpower, and that the existing forces have a lot of equipment that they can't use for lack of parts. Arms shipments would help that a lot.

Beyond that, if fighting starts, modern war burns through equipment quickly: hardware destroyed or needing repairs, and expensive ordinance used and expended. Assurance of generous logistics resupply would make the Ukraine outside Crimea a much more expensive target for Russia.

Will McLean said...

I think Sigitas has it right. An honest referendum might favor annexation to Russia, but it might not. From Putin's point of view, an honest referendum against annexation is much, much worse than no honest vote at all.

Tibor said...

Will: I thought it was 58%. Well, that is the number on Wikipedia and I don't know where it comes from exactly. It may be wrong of course. If it were only 40%, an honest referendum would not be so sure, that's right.

AMW said...

If, as I understand it, the Ukrainians gave it up in exchange for a guarantee of territorial integrity, then giving it back would make perfect sense, logically speaking.

My understanding is that Ukraine received security "assurances," not guarantees. If we had given them a guarantee then we would probably be in a shooting war right now. (That, or Putin would have held back, knowing how costly a shooting war with the U.S. would be.)

Whatever the strength of Russia's military vs. Ukraine's, it strikes me that if Iraqi militants could make life hell for our troops, Ukrainians could easily do the same. And I doubt this is lost on Putin.

Tibor said...

AMW: The problem with your last argument is that Iraq (and especially Afghanistan) consists of a very different type of terrain than Ukraine. It is much more suited for partisan warfare. Also, the problems were really only political. If you lose a lot of men and war becomes politically expensive, in a democratic government it is a problem. Russia does not have a (de facto) democratic government and this is not that big an issue there (it is becoming less of an issue for the US also, because of new technology like drones that can kill at much lower political costs). Afghanis routed Soviet military (with some US training and other indirect support) but I doubt something like this is possible in today's Ukraine. The country is much more developed with a lot of centralized information about the people and no suitable hideouts and terrain unfamiliar to the occupant.

However, I would be very surprised to see Putin invade Ukraine. Also, as of now, I don't see "good" sides here. Nobody knows who the new Ukrainian government really are and whether it is wise to support them. I think the same approach should be taken as with Syria (and those stupid "sanctions" should be repealed...although I guess there may be some political reasons for them if not economical, so it is perhaps not that clear). What I found really funny about the whole thing was that the EU officials called the Ukrainian revolution a "fight for democracy" when in fact they were fighting against a democratically elected government (a bunch of bastards for what I know, but if democracy is a value for you by itself, you cannot call a fight against such a government a fight for democracy). I don't know if it was good (in the sense that it will bring better life there) or justifiable (for me democracy is not really a value by itself) but you should not talk about democracy when you don't mean it. EU seems to be full of democracts when democracy brings the results they want. Not that I like Putin in any way and EU is still a lot better then him. But behind its high and mighty rhetoric there seems to be similar power interests as those behind Putin's actions, if perhaps not as blunt.

Anonymous said...

A question. How could Putin have invaded the Crimea when the region does not have a border with Russia and there was no airborne or amphibious invasion? This is a rhetorical question as the answer is patently obvious and the whole premise of an invasion is ludicrous and silly.

David Friedman said...

"How could Putin have invaded the Crimea when the region does not have a border with Russia and there was no airborne or amphibious invasion?"

There was a Russian naval base in the Crimea with troops in it.

Anonymous said...

So they were already there then. A Russian naval base that has been there for centuries. Some military personnel and self defence militia. No deaths yet you classify this as an invasion. All a bit wag the dog isn't it.

David Walker said...

Looks like now he's going to go after any Russian speaking region of the ex Soviet Union now

jdgalt said...

I would not want to see any faction given nuclear weapons because it only increases the chance that some side, not necessarily the same side, will feel the need to use them.

But it seems to me this situation (or at least the war-threat by Russia that may possibly follow it) would be a great opportunity for the US to show that "MAD" is an obsolete doctrine -- by sending a few dozen drones to kill Putin, his general staff, and all likely successors who are hawks.

If the current Joint Chiefs are competent, they are already setting up this possibility.

Anonymous said...

I think that Putin invaded Crimea because he needed a "warm water" port for his navy. St Petersburg (the home of the naval academy) at the Eastern end of the Baltic Sea freezes over in winter, as does Archangel inside the Artic Circle. His other major naval base is many thousands of miles from Moscow across Siberia on the Eastern coast of the Russian Federation near Vladivostok. The lease on Sevastopol was up for renewal in 2017 and the ousted leader of Ukraine, who many think was in Putin's pocket, was going to let him have it against the wishes of Ukrainian people; that's why he acted so quickly before Ukraine could get a democratically elected government. As someone commented, Crimea has no physical boundary with the RF, and as a result everything has to airlifted or shipped by sea. I feel it is for this reason fighting has been taking place in South East Ukraine so that Putin can take that land too and give him strategic road and rail links into Crimea.

Trucker Mark said...

Putin did not "invade" Crimea, as according to the terms of the 1991 Yalta Agreement, Russia was allowed to base 30,000 of their front-line troops at the 70 different Russian military facilities there.

About 50% of Crimean citizens are of Russian heritage, and about 60% of land ownership there was also Russian.

The Crimean election was observed by 122 impartial election observers from 22 different democratic nations worldwide as well as by over 400 election monitors from the three major parties involved, and the election was certified as fair.

Whereas the later Presidential election in Kiev was beset by numerous fraud claims which included the fact that 80% of the electorate in eastern Ukraine, the political power base of the former Ukraine President, was excluded from voting.

The more-recent Parliamentary election in Kiev has also been accused of major election fraud which also excluded voters in the eastern Ukraine, and which only produced 22% turnout. Another odd issue had the ruling party losing at the ballot box but winning a 60-40 majority of the seats in Parliament there too.

Whereas the recent Presidential election in eastern Ukraine was also observed by impartial elections observers from 26 different democratic nations, including elections observers from the US, certified as fair, which the US and EU officially dismissed anyway.

Let's compare the situation in Crimea with a hypothetical situation in South Korea. Let's say that there is a violent coup and the new government favors reunification with North Korea on North Korean terms. Now we have a 6-figure number of troops there as well as substantial US assets there too.

Do you honestly think for one minute that our troops would stay on their bases and not immediately act to protect our assets and citizens there from the coup leadership?

Did we send troops to Panama or Grenada to unseat the government of both countries? Yes we did. Why the double standard involving Ukraine? It couldn't be those fracking contracts signed by Chevron, the Koch Brothers, Royal Dutch, and BP could it, all of which were signed between November 2013 and January, 2014?

Is that what the coup in Ukraine is all about, several first world oil & gas companies trying to seize Ukrainian natural gas assets, and democracy there be damned in the process?