The Caucasus war of August 2008 was a shock to Russian-Western relations. The West's timid reaction to the five-day conflict and to Russia's de facto annexation of two Georgian provinces do not bode well for the future of European security. The recent renewal of friendly relations between Moscow and Washington and the current rapprochement between President Dmitry Medvedev and the liberal Russian intelligentsia may give reason for hope, but a major source of instability in northern Eurasia remains in place.
A radically anti-Western and decidedly neo-imperialist faction of the Moscow elite has gained a foothold in the Russian governmental apparatus, Putin's United Russia party, electronic and print media, (un)civil society and academia. Ultra-nationalists, who are more or less influential and often relatively young, have become part and parcel of everyday political,journalistic and intellectual discourse in the post-Soviet world. They range from the newly appointed presidential administration officer Ivan Demidov to the popular political commentator Mikhail Leontyev and the recently-elected Moscow State University professor Alexander Dugin. These and others with similar views were among the government's whips during the Russian army's intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia last summer.
Kremlin-controlled TV channels reported the armed confrontation in the Southern Caucasus as a proxy war fought by the Georgians for, and with the support of, the US against Russia. The media campaign during and after the August war gave official status to the bizarre conspiracy theories that Leontyev, Dugin and Co. have been propagating in prime-time television shows and highbrow analytic journals for a long time.
Since the rise of Vladimir Putin there have been years of unfettered xenophobic agitation in the Russian mass media by Moscow's revanchist intellectuals. This is now coming home to roost. Recent opinion polling data suggests that anti-Western - especially anti-American and anti-NATO - feelings are widespread among ordinary Russians. The Levada Center,Russia's leading opinion poll agency, has found that attitudes towards the US had become less positive even before the Russian-Georgian War. When Putin became President in 2000 the figure was 65%. When he left the Kremlin in July 2008 it stood at 43%.
Pro-American feelings have declined further in all sectors of Russian society since the war.The state-controlled Russian polling agency VTsIOM, which had earlier downplayed Russian anti-Westernism, admitted recently that Russians' views of, for instance, NATO "have changed fundamentally." In 2006, 26% of Russians had regarded NATO as an organisation primarily promoting US interests. In 2009 that figure is 41%. In 2006 21% of Russians regarded NATO as an organisation whose mission was to "conduct aggressive military acts against other countries". At the end of March 2009 31% were of this opinion. (VTsIOM Press Release no. 1191). Whatever the current "Obama-effect" in Russia, one suspects that it may not last long.
The political outlook in the world's largest country and remaining nuclear superpower has recently undergone a sea-change. This is particularly relevant in the context of several unresolved issues in Moscow's former empire, among them the future of the Black Sea section of Russia's naval forces. The Russian Black Sea fleet is based in the city of Sevastopol,an independent municipality of Ukraine with a population of 379,000. It is the largest city of the Crimean peninsula.
Sevastopol gained world fame in the 19th century. The major port of the Black Sea fleet and its siege, which lasted almost twelve months, became an important episode in the 1853-56 Crimean War between the Tsarist Empire and France, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire. Many Tsarist army soldiers who fought and fell at Sevastopol were, in fact, Ukrainians rather than Russians. Nevertheless, in Russia the tenacious defence of Sevastopol against the Western invaders became an iconic image. For many Russians the Crimean War also provides justification of Moscow's rightful claim to Sevastopol. Thousands of Ukrainians made a direct contribution to the war, but the powerful military mythology around the Tsarist army's heroic defence of the empire's Southern border could be exploited by Moscow's political technologists in a modern conflict too.
The Crimean War is also important for an understanding of the generic security risks prevalent in the post-Soviet world and elsewhere. The mid-19thcentury standoff between Russia and the West in the Black Sea was the first modern armed conflict and is an example of how international wars have mostly come about. Today's public perception of the reasons for war is dominated by the military adventures of Nazi Germany. This is a topic dealt with in hundreds of documentaries and movies shown on TV on an almost daily basis in Europe and elsewhere. Yet World War II remains altogether atypical. It was caused by the long-planned attempt of the "Berlin-Rome-Tokyo Axis" to destroy the states it invaded, annex their territories and subjugate or kill their populations.
This has, however, not been the main cause for armed confrontations in world history, as the prehistory of the Crimean War illustrates. Wars have often been declared not as a result of a long-planned and well-prepared military expansion. More often than not, they were the outcome of escalating tension between states which originally had no intention (or even interest) in fighting each other, or not on the battlefield at any rate. It took a long chain of events for France, Britain and Turkey (with Sardinia) to form a coalition in the 1850s and embark on a war with the Tsarist army in the Black Sea and other seas around the Russian Empire.
Aggressive factions among Moscow's post-Soviet imperialists would, it is true, like to annex the Crimea - if not all of south-eastern Ukraine - sooner rather than later.Many of these ultra-nationalists would also be prepared to wage immediate war in pursuit of this goal. But they do not play a dominant role in Russian foreign policy. Explicitly expansionist Kremlin policies would not be necessary for tensions to escalate around the Black Sea. If emotions were to become heated in connection with the future of the Sevastopol naval base, the position of Crimea's ethnic Russian majority vis-à-vis the Ukrainian state, or the rights of the Tatar minority within the Crimean Autonomous Republic, this would be sufficient to start the bloodshed. The ensuing sequence of political reactions, social mobilisation and mutual accusations by Kiev and Moscow would bring Europe's two largest countries quickly to the brink of an armed confrontation.
Inter-ethnic violence would put both sides under pressure to intervene militarily. The Russian-Georgian war illustrated that Russia has no qualms about deploying regular army units beyond its borders swiftly and on a large scale. Furthermore Moscow was prepared to provide "assistance" to South Caucasian peoples. In the ethnic Russian heartland of the Russian Federation (RF) these people are often victims of racist prejudice. They are classified as "persons of Caucasian nationality", and Caucasian here means "black" rather than "white" people.
In the case of Abkhazia, Moscow offered "assistance" to a population that was under no immediate threat from Georgian troops. The case is especially remarkable because in August 2008 the Abkhaz republic was finally excised from Georgian state territory. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Abkhazians were not in the majority in the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic(ASSR), a situation that was replicated in many other USSR autonomous republics. The peculiar migration policies of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union meant that at the last USSR census in 1989 45.7% of the inhabitants of the Abkhaz ASSR were classified as "Georgian", whereas only 17.8% called themselves "Abkhazian". Abkhazians were thus only slightly more numerous than Russians (14.3%) and Armenians (14.6%).
By "recognising the independence" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and deploying troops on their territories, the Russian political elite has demonstrated its desire for a partial revision of the results of the fall of the Russian empire. The situation in the Crimea is unlike the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia: most inhabitants are ethnic Russians who appear to be actively acquiring RF passports. Should the public in the RF come to believe that hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians in the Crimea are under some sort of threat, the Kremlin may feel obliged to "protect its compatriots", whatever the larger implications and geopolitical costs.Decision-makers in the Kremlin may even understand that the chances of a full military victory in the Black Sea peninsula are slim. This was not the case with South Ossetia. But if public opinion were to be whipped up by apocalyptic visions and hate-messages from the likes of Leontyev or Dugin, even moderate Russian politicians would feel a compulsion to prove their "patriotism," and "take a principled position."
The two foremost Western specialists on the Crimea are Gwendolyn Sasse of Oxford University and Taras Kuzio, a regular contributor to openDemocracy. They explain why existing ethnic tensions have not so far led to large-scale violence in the Crimea. Sasse found in mid-2008 that "in recent years, Russian leaders have understood the benefits of a cooperative relationship with Ukraine, but have also taken advantage of close ties to the Crimea as a means of influencing Kiev." Kuzio is more sceptical of Russian intentions, but he too noted (early in 2009) that there is a "low level of animosity between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in Crimea." Kuzio identified inter alia "the ability of the Ukrainian security service to undermine Crimean separatism."
These and other factors recently listed by Sasse and Kuzio are still valid and will remain so. However, it is not clear if they have taken full account of recent changes in Russian public opinion concerning the outside world in general, and the political mood of Moscow's elite regarding the conduct of foreign affairs in particular.
In a confrontation between relatively pro- and radically anti-Western political factions within the Kremlin, Russia's new frame of mind could easily be exploited by Moscow's ultra-nationalists. Encouragement of Crimean anti-Ukrainian and separatist forces could be seen by the extreme right as a strategy to undermine the Russian-Western rapprochement.
A resulting Russian-Ukrainian war would be devastating for the relationship of these two closely-linked nations and disastrous for European security. A worst-case scenario could replicate the situation during Russia's first two Chechen wars: it could lead to the deaths of thousands of Crimeans (including many ethnic Russians), and a long period of international isolation for Russia.
It would also discipline President Dmitri Medvedev, as the Russian-Georgian War held back - at least temporarily - the new President's domestic and foreign initiatives. Another irredentist war would transform Russia into something like a fortress with an even more rigid internal regime and less international cooperation than today. It would again postpone, or even put an end to, the Medvedev circle's attempts to re-democratise Russia.
Moscow's revanchists may calculate that the political repercussions of escalating tension in the Crimea will strengthen their position in Russia. Should they get a chance to manipulate the politics of the Black Sea peninsula, a second Crimean War could become a reality.
An abridged version of the above article was published by "Russia Profile." It also appeared, in Russian and Ukrainian, in the Kyiv weekly "Zerkalo nedeli/Dzerkalo tyzhnia," on April 25 2009.
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