Friday, March 28, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Russia Can Seize Southeastern Ukraine but Not Hold It, Akhmetov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 28 – The Russian Federation currently has enough forces on the border of Ukraine to seize the southeastern portions of that country, but because it will face a partisan war after it defeats the outmanned Ukrainian military, the Russian forces currently available are insufficient to hold that region, according to Rashit Akhmetov.

            In a lead article in the current issue of “Zvezda Povolzha,” Akhmetov says that the experience of World War II shows that Moscow would need at least 500,000 troops to pacify that portion of Ukraine, a number that would require it to mobilize a far larger military than it now has (no. 11 (691) March 27-April 2, 2014, p. 1).

            In addition to the fact that the initial invasion would divide Russia from the rest of the world, lead to an outburst of partisan war, and likely prompt the delivery of military supplies to those Ukrainians who would continue to fight, the Kazan editor says, the war would have negative consequences for Russia in at least two other ways.

            On the one hand, raising such a large army would put pressure on and further depress the Russian economy, almost certainly sparking public anger and requiring more domestic repression.  And on the other, “China could use the opportunity to seize two million square kilometers of territory in Siberia.”

            But the most serious challenge would come from the West, Akhmetov says, because “Russia does not have air superiority over the West” and would pay a high price for that.  “Even the USSR and the Warsaw Pact could not oppose the West, and Russia in fact has only a tenth of the potential of such opponents.”

            That opens the way to a very dangerous situation, the Kazan editor says. If  the Kremlin finds itself losing, it may conclude that it has been backed into a corner where it has no option but to use nuclear weapons, first of the tactical kind and then of the even more awful strategic ones. 

            All those risks combine to make the situation in Crimea and Ukraine something less than the regional struggle that Moscow has tried to present it as being and that at least some in the West have assumed they are in a position to ensure that it is nothing more than that.

            As a Kazan Tatar and thus a member of a nation closely linked with the Crimean Tatars, Akhmetov not surprisingly devotes most of his lead article to a discussion of the difficult position that that community now finds itself in.

            According to Akhmetov, former Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaymiyev pushed Mustafa Cemilev to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin because the Kazan leader “intuitively” felt that such a meeting could lead to the restoration of a Crimean Tatar Autonomous Republic.

            That republic, of course, to the extent it was in Putin’s gift, would have been within the Russian Federation, at least initially.  Cemilev as a supporter of Ukraine refused to meet with Putin, although he did talk on the telephone with him.  But whatever chance there was to restore the republic was missed at least for the time being.

            (Akhmetov notes that the demography of the peninsula would not have been an obstacle for this, despite what many think.  At present, only 14 percent of the population of Crimea is Crimean Tatar but their share is increasing. And Russia already had an autonomous republic – Karelia – in which the titular nationality forms only 11 percent.)

            Akhmetov argues that “what was a matter of principle importance for the Crimean Tatars was the restoration of their own republic.” Whether it would be in Ukraine or in the Russian Federation was a matter of “secondary importance” because as Shaymiyev argued, “Crimea is neither Russian nor Ukrainian but rather Crimean Tatar.”

            But Cemilev clearly did not believe that the Crimean Tatars could restore their republic on the basis of a betrayal of Ukraine, even though the Moscow-backed and predominantly ethnic Russian government on the peninsula was prepared to offer the Crimean Tatars unprecedented representation in the government.

            Cemilev and the other Crimean Tatars refused to go along: they boycotted the referendum.  That was a principled position, but it is one, Akhmetov argues, that may not give the Crimean Tatars anything because it appears that both the West and Kyiv are making their peace with the Russian annexation.

            Now, the Crimean Tatars are faced with having to decide whether to take Russian Federation citizenship. If they do, they will definitely break with Ukraine. But if they don’t, they will face something even more “unbearable,” “’a soft deportation’” out of Crimea into one of the neighboring Russian-dominated oblasts.

            In short, and beyond any doubt, what is happening now is “a tragedy for the Crimean Tatars.” But it is not their tragedy alone, Akhmetov suggests, however much many are prepared to argue in order to avoid taking the steps necessary to stop and reverse Vladimir Putin’s aggression and the continuation of the Russian Anschluss of Crimea.

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