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Common Cents

Russia's Crimea Land Grab

Ralph Murphy

(3/17/2014) On Monday 17 March the recently installed Crimea Parliament declared itself an independent republic and will soon request to become a sovereign subject of the Russian Federation. The move follows a regional referendum the previous day, that Western powers consider a charade in which the Crimean, independence movement garnered 96.7% of the official vote. Russian troops directed the electorate be held a brief two weeks after seizing control of Crimean military bases and their neighboring facilities. The west has promised economic and diplomatic sanctions in the first such extra legal, territorial "land grab" in modern European history.

Ukraine's hereto for "Autonomous Republic of Crimea" is composed of 58.32% ethnic Russians, 24.3% Ukrainians, 12.1% Muslim Tatars, and a smattering of other nationalities. It has been an integral part of the Ukrainian nation for over 60 years, but has served Russian interests by providing a naval base at Sevastopol that is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet. Aviation and support facilities for the Black Sea Fleet are spread throughout the Crimean peninsula. A 1997 base treaty was rewritten by the then ethnic and pro Russian Ukraine government to extend to 2042 with a five-year extension option.

Relations between Moscow and Kiev have generally been frosty since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. They are bound economically with an extensive oil pipeline transiting Ukraine's territory from Russia that carries up to 300,000 barrels per day. Most of that petrol goes to European nations. This is a fraction of the 3.05 million barrels a day that Moscow sells in the West through various distribution methods. 84% of Russia's oil exports go to Europe along with 76% of its natural gas. If the spigot were turned off, Russia stands to lose more than half of its annual, federal budget revenue and it would largely shut down their economy.

United States' oil and natural gas companies, benefitting from a deluge of the commodity following successful new extraction methods such as "fracking", have advocated easing export restrictions to the Europeans. Their calls have been politically unpopular, as there would be a domestic supply decrease, and an associated price increase. However, the current Crimea situation and itŐs associated security concerns may lead to a policy review.

Ukraine was an original member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), but never ratified its membership in the organization. It "disagreed with Russia being the only legal successor to the Soviet Union." Other former Soviet republics were less concerned over the legal constraint, and 12 of them were eventual adherents in a community that sought "coordination in trade, finance, organizational law making, and security." Ukraine assumed an "Associate Member status."

Russia's oil wealth has vaulted it to 8th place on the world, economic stage with earnings of $2.014 trillion annually. This, behind Latin America's Brazil which earned $2.24 trillion in 2012. The 12 nation CIS's combined Gross Domestic Product (GDP) manages $2.598 trillion a year. This is this well under Germany at 3.4 trillion dollars.

Despite the CIS's third world charm, the West can't afford to laugh off the Russian maneuvers as the nation is heavily invested in defense spending, and has a propensity to use it's forces both at home, in Chechnya, and abroad as it did in Georgia in 2008. This Russian invasion created two independent nations- South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Nations that are recognized by Russia and very few others. At least in this case, the Russians withdrew- confident that the nations, that were largely populated by ethnic Russians, would serve their interests.

The Russians appear to have acquired a "victor's" mindset following the Georgia incursion. This, after failing to dominate the pernicious tribes of Afghanistan during the 1980's. Not satisfied with a lengthy Naval base agreement in Crimea, they have found a new route to national, territorial acquisition by illegally expanding their military presence on the peninsula; creating and propping up a Parliament there; and now receiving that nation's newly installed Premier Sergei Aksyonov request for annexation. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not yet indicated what he will do with the Crimea's petition. However, given his close working relationship with his Generals is expected to approve it.

President Barack Obama has emphasized the United States and its Western allies will impose economic and diplomatic sanctions as well as "additional costs" for the Russian venture. China, Russia's close economic and political partner in recent years, has said it won't back sanctions. The United Nations has no real role to play, because both Russia and China would probably veto any Security Council resolution condemning this international law breach. A UN peacekeeping force for the troubled area is unlikely given Moscow's certain downing of the measure if it were to reach New York.

Moscow likes to point to the 1998 Kosovo War as a pretext for its current belligerence. Then, the U.S. Clinton administration campaign wrested an ethnic Albanian region from Serb control, and created a new nation. It remained independent of the military alliance which created it.

The nation of Georgia, which had been a loyal member of the CIS until shortly after it was invaded, likewise handled the evulsion of its territory without further overt hostilities, recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia were divorced from it for a time, but not formally annexed by the Russians.

Crimea is a different story. Not satisfied with an enormous military and social presence on the isthmus the Russians have created an intriguing precedent for what the nation considers legal land acquisition and territorial domain. While it's unlikely Moscow will plunge into "Old Europe" given the defense alliances that exist there- especially the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

However, the Crimea victory and the Russian, historic personality of being an international 'bully" - they are certain to turn on the economically and militarily weak CIS. This suits their desires. Perhaps not overnight, but it's only been a little over 5 years since the Georgia campaign, and Russia has shown a tendency to pick on their submissive "own".

The West did virtually nothing following the Russian campaign into Georgia in 2008. The Ukraine has a 144,000 strong, ethnically divided, armed force depending largely on Soviet era war materiel. It doesn't have to become a NATO member, but given the unrest, now needs a deterrent member presence. The Russians have already penetrated the Ukraine-Crimea border region, and are conducting military "exercises" near the eastern, Ukrainian city of Donetsk. This is an area that includes a large number of ethnic Russians. A country long dependent on its Russian patron, now really needs help to maintain its territorial integrity and perhaps its very existence. Crimean independence and statehood could be granted by its sovereign, Ukraine rulers. Blatant disregard for the rule of law as demonstrated by Moscow must be fought.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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