Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Crimea Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, Chairman of the Crimea State Council Vladimir Konstantinov, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and Mayor of Sevastopol Alexei Chaly sign a treaty to officially include Crimea as part of the Russian Federation at the Crimea Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, Chairman of the Crimea State Council Vladimir Konstantinov, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, and Mayor of Sevastopol Alexei Chaly sign a treaty to officially include Crimea as part of the Russian Federation at the Grand Kremlin Palace 18 March 2014, Moscow, Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images.

Russia learned from the armed conflict in Georgia in 2008 that use of military force against neighbours can swiftly achieve foreign policy objectives at little long-term strategic cost. In Crimea in 2014, Russia has once again solved a problem in a way which most of the West found unimaginable in advance and unpalatable after the fact. But the rest of the world has little leverage to deter or punish Moscow.

President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and other Western leaders have warned of ‘costs’ for Russia as a result of military action. But the options for imposing penalties that are significant enough to be taken seriously by Moscow, while still being affordable for the United States and its allies, are few. The West can scold Russia and cancel summits, but Moscow has at no time considered words of outrage to be a response which needs to be taken into consideration. And with a veto on the United Nations Security Council, Russia need not be overly concerned at the prospect of action from the UN.

Furthermore, based on past performance Russia can confidently expect that any penalties which are imposed will be short-lived. In 2008, the West was incandescent with outrage over the Georgia conflict. The following year, the United States declared a ‘reset’, NATO resumed military contacts and business as usual returned.

Russian Consolidation

Kyiv and the West have been presented with a fait accompli of Russian control of Crimea. Russia moved briskly and effectively to assert control of uncertain circumstances on the peninsula while the interim Ukrainian authorities were unwilling or unable to grip the situation. Subsequently, the past few days have seen several steps in the process of legitimization (from a Russian perspective), both of the troops already deployed in Crimea and of any future reinforcement there or intervention in other parts of Ukraine.

This well-rehearsed process began when newly-installed Crimean leader Sergey Aksyonov requested Russian assistance in maintaining order, and President Putin magnanimously approved his request. Approval by the upper house of the Russian parliament for use of troops caused widespread alarm abroad. But this was no more than a democratic rubber stamp for processes already under way - a constitutional nicety put in place in 2009 after it became uncomfortably clear that the invasion of Georgia the previous year was not legal even under Russian law at the time.

Russian media coverage of developments in Ukraine highlights the largely fictitious danger to Russian citizens. This is another crucial ingredient of Russian preparations for further action. Just as in Georgia in 2008, protection of Russian citizens abroad can be used as one of the main pretexts for Russia moving in troops.

One possible next step to reinforce legitimacy from the Russian viewpoint is for the Russian marine infantry that seized key locations in Crimea to soon be rebadged as ‘peacekeepers’. This too would be in keeping with the 2008 scenario, where units of the 58th Army which had penetrated deep into Georgia were swift to paint the Russian ‘peacekeeping forces’ symbol on their vehicles as soon as combat operations were completed.

Can Independent Ukraine Resist?

Ukraine’s capacity for defence against Russia is limited. Recent efforts to update the Ukrainian military have not made it a serious match for Russian forces. The slow reaction to events by the interim government in Kyiv has led to the current stand-offs in Crimea between efficient and well-equipped Russian troops, and isolated and surrounded Ukrainian outposts that have been left considering their loyalties. It should not be forgotten that almost all senior officers of the Russian and Ukrainian militaries began their careers together in the Soviet Armed Forces. Many Ukrainian servicemen describe themselves as Russian: after the newly-appointed commander of the Ukrainian Navy immediately switched sides to Russia, more changes in allegiance should be expected, calling into question the extent to which any effective resistance could be offered to further Russian moves.

The chances of any response from the West which would be meaningful in Russian terms is remote, and the possibility of Western military intervention to protect Ukraine is less likely still. Nevertheless, despite all Russia’s military and political preparations for moving into other parts of Ukraine, Kyiv’s belated move to military readiness may still provide a sufficient deterrent. Russia has shown time and again that it will take whatever it can in the name of self-declared security needs, to the limits of its capability and until it meets meaningful resistance. The declared Ukrainian mobilization offers the potential, if not the certainty, of this resistance, and will certainly be giving Russian military planners cause for thought.

In 2008, fears that Russian forces would push on to Tbilisi and take Georgia as a whole proved unfounded, and Russia resolved the perceived security challenges on its southern frontier by establishing two puppet states, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russian planning horizons are longer than those of most Western countries: it is entirely possible that Moscow will be content for the time being with similar control of an ‘independent’ Crimea. The planned Crimean referendum on greater autonomy – brought forward to 30 March by the pro-Russian parliament in Simferopol –  paves the way for creating a notionally independent exclave supported by Moscow, following which Russia can patiently wait for the rest of Ukraine to fall into its hands under the weight of its unmanageable economic crisis.

After the conflict in Georgia, a deeply flawed ceasefire agreement imposed by then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy consolidated and legitimized Russian gains while immobilizing Georgian forces. A UK Defence Academy report of the time noted that Russia had thus ‘been encouraged to ever more direct unilateral action in pursuing their interests’. How the West handles the current crisis will determine whether an emboldened and even more assertive Russia will be deterred from future adventures, or provided with yet more encouragement.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback