The August 2008 war in the Caucasus was a shock to Russian-Western relations. The West’s timid reaction to the five-day conflict and to the de facto annexation of two Georgian provinces, by Russia, do not bode well for the future of European security. While the recent renewal of friendly relations between Moscow and Washington as well as current rapprochement between President Dmitry Medvedev and the liberal Russian intelligentsia give reason for hope, the major source for instability in northern Eurasia remains in place.
A radically anti-Western and decidedly neo-imperialist faction of Moscow’s elite has gained a foothold in the Russian governmental apparatus, Putin’s United Russia party, electronic as well as print media, (un)civil society, and academia. An array of more or less influential and, often, relatively young ultra-nationalists ranging from newly appointed presidential administration officer Ivan Demidov to popular political commentator Mikhail Leontyev as well as recently elected Moscow State University professor Alexander Dugin have become part and parcel of everyday political, journalistic and intellectual discourse, in the post-Soviet world. These and similarly oriented figures were among the government’s whips during the Russian army’s intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, last year. In the reports of Kremlin-controlled TV channels, the summer 2008 armed confrontation in the Southern Caucasuswas as a proxy-war that the Georgians were fighting for, and with the support of, the US against Russia. The media campaign during and after the August war provided official approbation for the bizarre conspiracy theories that Leontyev, Dugin and Co. have been propagating in both prime-time television shows and high-brow analytic journals, for a long time.
The years of unfettered xenophobic agitation by Moscow’s revanchist intellectuals in Russian mass media since Vladimir Putin’s rise are showing effects. As recent opinion polling data suggests, anti-Western – especially anti-American and anti-NATO – feelings have become widespread among ordinary Russians. According to Russia’s leading opinion polling agency, the Levada Center, already before the Russian-Georgian War, Russians’ positive feelings towards the US had deteriorated from over 65% in 2000, when Putin became President, to 43% in July 2008, by when Putin had left the Kremlin. Click here
. Since the war in August, pro-American feelings have declined further, in all sectors of Russian society. 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 an organization pushing, in the first instance, interests of the US. By now, 41% have come to hold this opinion. Whereas in 2006, 21% of the Russian population had regarded NATO as an organization the mission of which was “conducting aggressive military acts against other countries,” in late March 2009, 31% agreed to that statement (Press Release No. 1191
). Whatever “Obama-effect” there currently is in Russia, one suspect that it may soon be over there.
The recent sea-change in the political outlook of the world’s largest country and remaining nuclear superpower gains relevance against the background of several unresolved issues in Moscow’s former empire, among them the future of the Black Sea section of Russia’s naval forces. Currently, the port hosting the Russian Black Sea fleet is the city of Sevastopol, an independent municipality of Ukraine, and, with a population of 379,000, the largest city of the Crimean peninsula.
Sevastopol gained world fame in the 19th century. Already then the major port of the Black Sea fleet, its almost one year long siege became the major episode of the 1853-56 Oriental or Crimean War between the Tsarist Empire, on the one side, and France, the UK and the Ottoman Empire, on the other. Many of the Tsarist army soldiers who fought and fell at Sevastopol were, in fact, Ukrainians and not Russians. Nevertheless, the Crimean War of the 1850s created, in Russia, a historical imagery of the Russians tenacious defense of Sevastopol against Western invaders, and Moscow's rightful claim to that city. In spite of thousands of Ukrainians' direct contribution to this war, the powerful military mythology around the Tsarist army’s heroic defense of the empire’s Southern border may, by Moscow's political technologists, be exploited also in a contemporary conflict.
The Crimean War is also relevant to an understanding of generic security risks prevalent in the post-Soviet world and elsewhere. Being the first modern armed conflict, the mid-19th century standoff between Russia and the West, in the Black Sea, is an example of how international wars have often come about. Today’s public perception of the reasons for war are dominated by Nazi Germany’s military adventures – 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 an altogether untypical instance. It was caused by one side’s, the "Berlin-Rom-Tokyo-Axis's," long-planned attempt to destroy the states it invaded, annex their territories, and subjugate or kill their populations.
That has, however, not always been the cause for armed confrontations in world history, as the prehistory of the Crimean War illustrates. Frequently, wars have broken out not as a result of a long-planned and well-prepared military expansion. Often, they were outcomes of an escalation of tensions between states which, originally, had not been intending or not been interested to fight each other, on the battle-field, at all costs. In the 1850s, it needed a long chain of events to cause France, the United Kingdom and Turkey (as well as Sardinia) to form a coalition and enter a fight with the Tsarist army in the Black and other seas around the Russian Empire.
To be sure, the aggressive factions among Moscow’s post-Soviet imperialists would like to annex Crimea – if not all of south-eastern Ukraine – to Russia sooner rather than later. Many of these ultra-nationalists would be also prepared to, right away, wage war for reaching this aim. However, they do not dominate Russian foreign policy. For an escalation of tensions, at the Black Sea, explicitly expansionist policies by the Kremlin would not be necessary. A mere stirring up of emotions around 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 could be sufficient to spill first blood. The following sequence of political reactions, social mobilization 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 power-holders, on both sides, under pressure to militarily intervene. As the Russian-Georgian war illustrated, Russia has no qualms to use swiftly, and on a large scale, regular army units beyond its borders. Furthermore, Moscow was prepared to provide "help" to South Caucasian peoples who, in the ethnic Russian heartland of the Russian Federation (RF), frequently suffer from racist prejudices and are classified as "persons of Caucasian nationality" – the term "Caucasian" referring here to "black" rather than "white" people. In the case of Abkhazia, Moscow, moreover, "helped" a population that was under no immediate threat from Georgian troops. The case is remarkable even more so as, in August 2008, the Abkhaz republic was finally excised from the Georgian state territory although, when the Soviet Union fell apart, its titular nationality had, like in many other autonomous republics of the USSR, not constituted a majority of the population of the Abkhaz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). As a result of the peculiar migration policies of the CPSU, during the last census of the USSR in 1989, 45,7% of the inhabitants of the Abkhaz ASSR were classified as "Georgians" whereas only 17,8% called themselves "Abkhaz" – the percentage of Abkhazians being thus only slightly higher than that of the share of Russians and Armenians in the population of Abkhazia.
With its "recognition of the independence" of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well as through the stationing of troops on their territories, the Russian political elite has demonstrated that it is interested in a partial revision of the results of the Russian empire's fall. Most of Crimea’s inhabitants are, unlike South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia's populations, ethnic Russians who seem to be actively acquiring RF passports. Should the Russian Federation's public come to believe that the hundreds of thousands of ethnically Russian inhabitants of Crimea are under some sort of threat, the Kremlin may feel forced to “protect the compatriots" – whatever the larger implications and geopolitical costs. The Kremlin’s decision-makers may even understand that the chances, on the Black Sea peninsula, of a full military victory are, unlike in South Ossetia, slim. Yet, a public opinion whipped up by apocalyptic visions and hate-speech from the likes of Leontyev or Dugin would force even moderate Russian politicians to prove their "patriotism," and "take a principled position."
The West’s two foremost specialists on Crimea, Gwendolyn Sasse of the Oxford University, and Taras Kuzio of Carleton University, explain why existing ethnic tensions have, so far, not led to large-scale violence, on 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 Crimea as a means of influencing Kiev.” Kuzio is more skeptical towards Russian intentions, in Crimea. But, in early 2009, he too noted that there is a “low level of animosity between ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in Crimea.” Kuzio pointed to, among other aspects, “the ability of the Ukrainian security services to undermine Crimean separatism.” These and other factors listed by Sasse and Kuzio recently are still valid, and will remain so. Yet, it is not clear whether they take into full account recent changes in Russian public opinion on the outside world, in general, and the political mood of Moscow’s elite regarding its 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 utilized by Moscow’s ultra-nationalists. An encouragement of anti-Ukrainian and separatist forces, on Crimea, could be seen by the extreme right as a strategy to undermine Russian-Western rapprochement. A resulting Russian-Ukrainian war would be devastating for the relations of the two closely related nations, and disastrous for European security. In the worst case, it could, as was the case during Russia's two Chechnia wars, mean the death of thousands of Crimeans (including many ethnic Russians), and lastingly isolate Russia internationally. However, it would also discipline President Dmitry Medvedev in the way in which the Russian-Georgian War withheld – at least, for some time – 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-democratize Russia. Moscow’s revanchists may calculate that the political repercussions of an escalation of tensions on 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 reality.
An abridged version of the above article was earlier published by "Russia Profile." It also appeared, in English, at "Open Democracy," and, in Russian and Ukrainian, in the Kyiv weekly "Zerkalo nedeli/Dzerkalo tyzhnia," on April 25, 2009.