Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Russia's Latest Land Grab: How Putin Won Crimea and Lost Ukraine

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

Russia's Latest Land Grab: How Putin Won Crimea and Lost Ukraine

Article excerpt

Russia's occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in February and March have plunged Europe into one of its gravest crises since the end of the Cold War. Despite analogies to Munich in 1938, however, Russia's invasion of this Ukrainian region is at once a replay and an escalation of tactics that the Kremlin has used for the past two decades to maintain its influence across the domains of the former Soviet Union. Since the early 1990s, Russia has either directly supported or contributed to the emergence of four breakaway ethnic regions in Eurasia: Transnistria, a self-declared state in Moldova on a strip of land between the Dniester River and Ukraine; Abkhazia, on Georgia's Black Sea coast; South Ossetia, in northern Georgia; and, to a lesser degree, Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked mountainous region in southwestern Azerbaijan that declared its independence under Armenian protection following a brutal civil war. Moscow's meddling has created so-called frozen conflicts in these states, in which the splinter territories remain beyond the control of the central governments and the local de facto authorities enjoy Russian protection and influence.

Until Russia annexed Crimea, the situation on the peninsula had played out according to a familiar script: Moscow opportunistically fans ethnic tensions and applies limited force at a moment of political uncertainty, before endorsing territorial revisions that allow it to retain a foothold in the contested region. With annexation, however, Russia departed from these old tactics and significantly raised the stakes. Russia's willingness to go further in Crimea than in the earlier cases appears driven both by Ukraine's strategic importance to Russia and by Russian President Vladimir Putin's newfound willingness to ratchet up his confrontation with a West that Russian elites increasingly see as hypocritical and antagonistic to their interests.

Given Russia's repeated interventions in breakaway regions of for- mer Soviet states, it would be natural to assume that the strategy has worked well in the past. In fact, each time Russia has undermined the territorial integrity of a neighboring state in an attempt to maintain its influence there, the result has been the opposite. Moscow's support for separatist movements within their borders has driven Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova to all wean themselves off their dependence on Russia and pursue new partnerships with the West. Ukraine will likely follow a similar trajectory. By annexing Crimea and threatening deeper military intervention in eastern Ukraine, Russia will only bolster Ukrainian nationalism and push Kiev closer to Europe, while causing other post-Soviet states to question the wisdom of a close alignment with Moscow.


These frozen conflicts are a legacy of the Soviet Union's peculiar variety of federalism. Although Marxism is explicitly internationalist and holds that nationalism will fade as class solidarity develops, the Soviet Union assigned many of its territorial units to particular ethnic groups. This system was largely the work of Joseph Stalin. In the first years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin headed the People's Commissariat for Nationality Affairs, the Soviet bureaucracy set up in 1917 to deal with citizens of non-Russian descent. Stalin's commis- sariat presided over the creation of a series of ethnically defined territorial units. From 1922 to 1940, Moscow formed the largest of these units into the 15 Soviet socialist republics; these republics became independent states when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Although designed as homelands for their titular nationalities, the 15 Soviet socialist republics each contained their own minority groups, including Azeris in Armenia, Armenians in Azerbaijan, Abkhazians and Ossetians in Georgia, Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, and Karakalpaks in Uzbekistan, along with Russians scattered throughout the non-Russian republics. …

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