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Russia, Flexing Its Muscles: Making a Geopolitical Mistake?

Released: 2-Mar-2014 11:00 PM EST
Source Newsroom: Saint Joseph's University
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Russia expert Lisa Baglione, Ph.D., chair and professor of political science at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, offers an analysis of President Vladimir Putin's aggressive and provocative action in the Crimea.

Russia has seized control of the Crimean peninsula with, in the words of its officials, “limited stabilizing military forces…until the ‘normalization of the socio-political situation,’” can be accomplished in that region. While Ukraine's new leaders and Western officials scramble to respond, many commentators acknowledge that Russia's strategic location, forward bases, and Ukraine's weak forces make meaningful coercive attempts to dislodge the Russians virtually impossible. Has Russia scored another big victory in world politics this weekend?

Not necessarily. Crimea and Ukraine might not be so easily tamed. About the size of Belgium with a
population of nearly two million people, Crimea is not a small place. This area has a complicated history and a diverse, vocal population. Although the ethnic Russians who make up 60 percent of the population are now getting most of the attention, the peninsula is also home to a significant number of Crimean Tatars who number close to 300,000, or14 percent of the population, as well as Ukrainians, who make up about 25 percent.

The Crimean Tatars suffered mightily under Russian and Soviet rule, with the most recent and painful grievance being their 1944 deportation by Stalin: The forced mass exodus to Siberia and Uzbekistan led to the deaths of about 110,000 of the 240,000 deportees. In spite of this history,Tatars started returning to Crimea in the 1980s, particularly since the end of the U.S.S.R. and the advent of a sovereign Ukraine.

While Russian ethnics control the political machinery and Russian troops are stationed close by in Ukraine’s naval base, and others crossed the border recently as part of the military exercise, Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians in the region will not likely take this domination lightly. As well, this area is not Abkhazia or South Ossetia, which both were much smaller
in population and primarily ethnic Russian who almost uniformly welcomed the 2008 invasion.

So, what is Russian President Vladimir Putin doing? This action is part of a larger effort to force Ukraine back into the Russian economic and political fold, following on its earlier pressure that convinced Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych to back out of the partnership with the E.U. The demonstrators that packed Kiev’s central square, the Maidan, slowed these plans for three months, but it appears Putin has not been deterred.

These especially provocative and aggressive moves are unlikely, however, to give Russia the victory it seeks. Unlike the restive Georgian provinces, this area is much bigger and more diverse. This action is likely to unite Ukrainians in their opposition to Russia’s bullying behavior. Even if Russia were successful in resting control of Ukraine — or aid in the creation of an “independent” Crimea — this region is not likely to remain calm: Its independence can be
expected to move the rest of Ukraine farther from the Russian sphere.

Putin’s decision to use force, then, will not achieve his goals and will be a terrible mistake for his grander plan. In the interim, of course, he will appear tough and will stand up to the “fascists” and “Western provocateurs," as he characterizes the new Ukrainian government and those who oppose this territorial and power grab. But this move also makes perfectly clear his modus operandi — as if that were obscure in the first place — and will help to unite Ukrainians and activate Russians against him.

President Putin may use violence to strike them down in the short run, but it’s not a winning strategy for the long term.

Baglione can be reached for comment at lbaglion@sju.edu, 610-660-1749, or by calling the Office of University Communications at 610-660-3240.

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