14 March 2014

Keir Giles

Senior Consulting Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme


Leaders from the G7 went into crisis talks 24 March 2014, on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), to decide how to respond to Russia's absorption of Crimea. Photo by Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images.
Leaders from the G7 went into crisis talks 24 March 2014, on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit (NSS), to decide how to respond to Russia's absorption of Crimea. Photo by Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images.


On 17 March, the EU is due to finalize a list of sanctions against Russia over its seizure of Crimea. Effective measures would be welcome; but they need to be the start of a longer term strategy for managing Russia and its appetite for military adventure. 

The full text of the EU sanctions framework, including the names of individuals targeted for travel bans, is not scheduled to be released until the day after the Crimean referendum scheduled for 16 March. The United States too is tying several of its threatened sanctions against Russia to this vote, and how Russia responds to its result. 

The West has shown unity in condemning the planned referendum as unlawful and invalid. But that may not matter. The way the EU has threatened sanctions, and the demands to which they are linked, allow both sides to avoid escalation of the conflict by accepting Russian control of Crimea. 

The EU has not demanded that Russia should relinquish its control of Crimea. Instead, it has asked for little more than entering discussions with the authorities in Kyiv. This will happen in any case: while at present Moscow is constrained from working with the interim Ukrainian government because that would imply endorsement of its legitimacy, Russia will, eventually, need to talk to its neighbour. At that point the EU can claim that its threats were effective, while Russia is content with acceptance of its gains through military force. By that stage, it will be irrelevant or forgotten that the referendum was entirely unlawful. 

A pre-emptive 'declaration of independence' has already been approved by the pro-Russian Crimean parliament, in anticipation of a vote in favour of joining Russia. Absorption into Russia could well be speedy. Russia needs to move fast in order to maintain the initiative, and keep the West scrambling for responses. The real irony is that the only reason for declaring 'independence' is that it is a necessary step in order for Crimea immediately to be subjected to Russian rule. 

The Longer View 

Either result in the referendum allows use of Crimea as a lever to render the rest of Ukraine ungovernable without Russian consent. The most immediate concern in this respect is any possible further Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine. Another major Russian military exercise, this time of the Airborne Assault Troops, together with an unprecedented concentration of Russian amphibious assault ships in the Black Sea, will no doubt be focusing the minds of military planners.  

But just as with sanctions, close attention to the short-term problem risks obscuring the even more alarming longer-term trend. This trend is of growing confidence and assertiveness by Russia, and increased willingness to put the West's strength and resolve to the test. 

Successful seizure of Crimea from a neighbour will merely confirm that military force achieves long-term strategic gains, at costs which are likely to be short term. In addition, comments by President Putin make it clear how highly personalized is the issue of Ukraine and Crimea. The likely effectiveness of financial penalties must therefore be weighed against the deep historical and emotional meaning of the gains made for Russia and for Putin himself. 

The consequence is that sanctions, no matter how expensive for the Russian economy, may not dissuade the Russian leadership from employing this highly effective military tool again in future. 

This can be a difficult point to put across to Western decision-makers who are inexperienced in dealing with Russia. 

A thoughtful piece in the New York Times on 6 March considered the deficit in Russia expertise in the West, caused by focus on the Middle East and Asia over the last two decades. This deficit can lead to a lack of understanding at leadership levels, of Russia and of the people who direct Russian power. As a result, the West is left reacting to each new Russian initiative, instead of acquiring the strategic vision needed to manage the challenge of Russia proactively. As one former NATO high official put it, those considering policy responses to Russia's move into Crimea were left 'starting with the same blank sheet of paper' as when responding to Russian troops moving into Georgia six years previously. 

And yet, Russia is not unpredictable; in fact, in many important ways, Moscow displays remarkable consistency throughout history. As a result, the small remaining enclaves of Russia expertise in Western policy, intelligence and analytical communities can and do predict those Russian moves which take Western leaders by surprise. 

Re-reading today’s analysis from 2008, with its accurate forecasts of the lessons Russia would draw from the Georgia war, is a depressing experience. What is essential now is for those enclaves to be listened to not after Russia invades a neighbour, as is currently the practice, but before. In addition, this expertise needs to be fostered and regenerated ahead of a new round of Russian challenges. 

Sanctions, if applied thoughtfully and consistently, have the potential to cost Russia dearly, and well-targeted travel bans will emphasise the point firmly. The sanctions themselves, and retaliatory measures by Russia, will also entail costs for Europe, and to some extent the United States. But these costs should be seen as a down payment on the future investment required to understand, manage and resist, Russia. An investment in foreseeing and forestalling Russia's next unacceptable act of force is an investment in the future security of Europe.

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