Having been in Europe for some weeks, I’ve heard several people whose opinions I respect say two things since the incident in the Kerch Strait: that the Ukrainian government is faltering and that Russia is going to make a play for the Black Sea. Any one of these people could be dismissed. All of them should not. That so many are talking this way means either they have fallen prey to a disinformation campaign of enormous size, or a new sense of reality is emerging in the region. It seems to me that one or both of possibilities need to be taken seriously.
Strategic depth is the basis of Russia’s national security, and it has been since the days of Napoleon. It was strategic depth, provided by buffer states, that enabled the country to absorb, weaken and destroy invading forces first from France and then twice more from Germany. For Europe – and its current security guarantor, the United States – the strategic depth Russia needs is a threat because it puts Russian forces deep in the European Peninsula. What Russia and what Europe need for their security are mutually exclusive.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, one set of buffer states, the Baltics, has joined NATO. Belarus has remained militarily neutral, insofar as there are no major Russian or European or American forces there. Ukraine, meanwhile, has shifted sides several times, most recently in 2014 when a pro-Western government replaced a pro-Russian government. The fear of a Russian invasion was real, but it overestimated Russian capabilities. By the same token, Moscow’s fear that the U.S. would arm Ukraine against it failed to materialize. The result was a vast buffer zone in which a relatively small number of Russian forces operated in the east, and Russia, entitled by treaty to a major naval base in Crimea, took control of the entire region. The effect was a fairly stable balance. The Russians maintained forces in the east that could not pose a military threat to Ukraine. And though the United States later began to amass forces in Poland and Romania, thus blocking the North European Plain and the southern Caucasus and creating a presence in the Black Sea, none of these forces posed a strategic threat to Russia.
At the time of the Euromaidan revolution in 2014, I expected Russia to try to destabilize Ukraine through covert means. That didn’t happen, in part because Russian intelligence lacked the ability to block regime change and was unlikely to be effective in Kiev for a while. But another reason was that Moscow thought the new government in Kiev would disintegrate because of its own internal tensions and ineptitude. From the Russian point of view, any action Moscow could take might provoke Washington – too great a risk given the relative power of the U.S. and the threat of sanctions. Russia got its buffer without paying the costs of occupation. The United States and Europe had their buffer, too. Ukraine was an issue, but it wasn’t a threat.
Sure enough, the Ukrainian government has never quite gelled into a highly effective entity. The coming elections are an opportunity for more fragmentation. But it is not clear that Russia is benefiting from Kiev’s struggles. What it needs is a complete collapse in Ukraine that would allow it to move unopposed or even welcomed to the frontiers of Romania and near Poland. That kind of political collapse, in which a vast area loses all structure and coherence, is rare. The more likely outcome of a failure in Kiev would be the emergence of regional powers. Some of them might welcome the Russians, but many more would have local bosses eager to keep their newfound power. Rather than handing Ukraine to Russia on a platter, a collapse would create an even more complex environment for Moscow.
The Kerch affair is unlikely to break the Ukrainian government, if in fact it was Russia’s attempt to do so. It has given Kiev an excuse to institute martial law, thereby concentrating more power in the president’s hand and making that power easier to exert. One possibility in all this is that Ukraine initiated the Kerch Strait crisis. But the Germans and Hungarians have condemned Russia in the wake of the incident, and they flirt too much with Moscow to take Kiev’s side without some facts.
That brings us to another rumor, that Russia plans to assert naval and air power in the Black Sea. On the surface, it makes sense. The U.S. is refurbishing an air base in Romania. Turkey, is ill-prepared to resist the Russians. It is also unlikely to negate the nearly century-old Bosporus treaty by allowing major U.S. naval units into the Bosporus. If the Russians make a move, they must do so before the U.S. has its air power in place and before Turkey finds its balance.
The Kerch affair could have been only a Russian initiative. Why? Start with the fact that prices for West Texas Intermediate oil are just over $50 a barrel, $30 dollars below where they were a short while ago, and well below the prices Russia needs to sustain its economy. On its own, the price of oil would be a problem for Moscow. Coupled with Western sanctions, it is ruinous. President Vladimir Putin is in a tight spot, reports of unrest are circulating, and he has to achieve something significant. Russia needs a lever, aside from appearing powerful, that it can use to negotiate an end to sanctions. One of the signs of its weakness is that it doesn’t have one. But Moscow – emerging from chaos in Ukraine, potential panic from eastern Europe, and a lack of U.S. force in the time and place of its choosing – may see the Kerch Strait as the lever it’s looking for.
The events in the Kerch Strait might – might – trigger a broader crisis. Kiev is incapable of a military response, since the U.S. has not provided it the requisite weapons, giving factions in Ukraine a chance to drive the government to the wall. The Black Sea, moreover, is one of the worst places for the U.S. to confront Russia, in terms of geography and resources. As Russia increases its presence there – a presence facilitated by its naval base at the Crimean port of Sevastopol – to defend the Kerch Strait (officially), and the U.S. does not make a decisive move, it could shake Ukraine to the core. But a fight in Ukraine is out of the question, not only for military reasons but also because the chaos in Kiev would be an internal political matter, not the result of any overt Russian action.
All of this comes from a basic read of geopolitics and the tenor of concerns in the region among people who tend to be rational but overanxious. Still, Russia seems to have seized the Ukrainian boats for no good reason, and Russia typically has good reasons for doing things.