Greg Satell, at Forbes, I think, accurately identifies Vladimir Putin’s motive in occupying the Crimea.
Crimea looms large in Russian history. It was the site of the Crimean War fought in the 1850â€™s against the French, British and Ottoman Empire . Although Russia lost, the bravery of its soldiers is still a source of Russian pride, much like The Alamo in Texas. Its resort city of Yalta hosted the famous talks between Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill.
Yet Russiaâ€™s interests in Crimea go far beyond nostalgia. As important as the region is for Russian pride, as the map below shows it looms even larger in the geopolitics of the region.
The naval base at Sevastopol, on Crimeaâ€™s southwestern tip, is Russiaâ€™s only warm water port and its primary means of extending force through the Mediterranean. It has been alleged that the port city has been used extensively to supply Bashar al-Assad throughout the current civil war in Syria.
And while the lease agreement with Ukraine regarding the base remains valid until 2047, the majority of the Black Sea coastline is held by NATO allies except for Georgia on the east, which is actively seeking NATO membership, and Ukraine in the north.
Put simply, without a naval base in Crimea Russia is finished as a global military power.
Julia Ioffe notes the additional key consideration: that no one can stop him. Certainly not Barack Obama.
Why is Putin doing this? Because he can. That’s it, that’s all you need to know. The situation in Kievâ€”in which people representing one half of the country (the Ukrainian-speaking west) took power to some extent at the expense of the Russian-speaking eastâ€”created the perfect opportunity for Moscow to divide and conquer. As soon as the revolution in Kiev happened, there was an unhappy rumbling in the Crimea, which has a large Russian population and is home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. It was a small rumbling, but just big enough for Russia to exploit. And when such an opportunity presents itself, one would be foolish not to take it, especially if one’s name is Vladimir Putin. …
Putin, sees the world according to his own logic, and the logic goes like this: it is better to be feared than loved, it is better to be overly strong than to risk appearing weak, and Russia was, is, and will be an empire with an eternal appetite for expansion. And it will gather whatever spurious reasons it needs to insulate itself territorially from what it still perceives to be a large and growing NATO threat.
What we don’t know, at this point, is whether Russia will contentedly gobble down the Crimea and stop, the way it did in the case of Georgia, or whether Russia will go on to occupy and annex Eastern Ukraine or the entire country.
If Russia simply takes the Crimea, Ukraine loses a nice vacation land and a semi-autonomous portion of territory to which it had only a pretty modest historical claim. Ukraine only acquired the Crimea as a gift by Nikita Krushchev in 1954. If Crimea had a legitimate historical owner, that would be the Crimean Tartars, conquered by Tsarist Russia in 1783, then deported en masse by Stalin in 1944 for collaborating with the German Occupation.
So, if Russia takes back and gets to keep its key warm water naval port, what does that really mean. A scene comes to mind from the late 1970s, when I was fresh out of Yale, and was working on war games at Simulation Publications in New York for the great Jim Dunnigan. The news of the day involved the contrast between some recent dramatic Soviet naval expansion and a further reduction of the US Navy’s budget by the peanut farmer.
The development team was sitting around a large table discussing current events gloomily and debating whether our next game should be a grand scale US versus Soviets Naval game. The arguments, as always, flew hotly back and forth, but finally one of the older and most cynical grognards called out: “OK, when was the last time Russia won a naval battle?”
We had a room full of military history buffs, all of whom were thrown basically for a loop. You could almost hear the gears spinning and smell the wiring overheating as we all racked our memories.
After a while, one very knowledgeable man suggested the 1827 Battle of Navarino during the Greek War for Independence. But, no, another expert objected: the Russians formed only a portion of an Allied fleet, and were effectively under British command.
The next best suggestion referred vaguely to Russian warships beating the Turks while under the command of Rear Admiral John Paul Jones in 1787 or 1788. At which point, the whole table broke up in laughter at the idea of what would happen to a Russian Navy with a centuries long tradition of not very much were it ever to encounter the US Navy, equipped with an enormously long tradition of victory.
Let Putin have Sevastopol. If Russia really needs to be a significant naval power in order to be a Global Power, Russia is still going to be out of luck.