Sunday, March 09, 2014

The Crimea: A Lesson in Realpolitiks

A few weeks ago, I congratulated the Ukrainian People on their successful revolution ( Just a few days after posting my blog, a series of events began to unfold. First, hundreds of heavily armed and well trained men were ferried by unmarked helicopters in the pre-dawn hours and immediately secured key government buildings, roads, and airports throughout the Crimea, a state within the Ukraine. Like the unidentified helicopters, the men had no unit or national identification. They moved with speed and exact precision; saying little about their intentions. Shortly afterwards, more troops began to be airlifted in along with unmarked truck convoys. But there was one key identifying marker, like the mysterious trucks, the weapons, and even the helicopters themselves, they were all of Russian manufacture. What few words the troops did speak weren't Ukrainian. It was Russian.

Given my own personal military expertise, I think there's little doubt that these impressively efficient soldiers were none other than Russia's vaulted "Spetsnaz" or Special Purpose Forces; quite possibly the 45th Guards which is an airborne delivery unit trained in these kind of procedures. They are very similar to the US Navy SEALS or the British SAS (Special Air Services). They are quite literally among the best of the best; individuals that you'd want on your side in a fight. The fact they were able to seize the entire state of Crimea during the final phases of a revolution without firing a shot should tell you a great deal about these guys. Since then, more and a more troops and equipment have poured into the Crimea; fully securing the state on behalf of Russia. Since the invasion or "stabilizing" of the Crimea as the Russian press is calling it, there's been dramatic increase in global tension, especially between Europe, Russia, and the US. But before we get into the that, let me give you a brief history of the Crimea to put things in context.

The Crimea is a peninsula which juts into the Black Sea, leading to the Mediterranean and Aegean seas through the Dardanelles Strait, separating Europe from Asia. Historically, it has been at the crossroads of countless armies, from the Scythians, Persians to Greeks, Romans, the Byzantine Empire and finally, the Huns, becoming a Khanate in 1443. Russia, from the time of Peter the Great, wanted to "Westernize", which meant trade and that meant a navy. However, Russia didn't have any warm water ports to speak of, but that changed in 1773 when the Crimea was conquered by the armies of Czarina Katherine the Great, where it remained in 1917 (during those years, the infamous Crimean War took place between 1853 and 1856, involving the empires of the Ottomans, France and Britain on one side and the Russian Empire on the other). From 1917 to 1921, the Crimea was more or less independent, however it came again under the control of the new Soviet Russia, where it remained until 1991. Since then, it has been part of the Ukraine.

In ethnic makeup, the Crimean population, which is just under 2 million, is 58% Russian and 24% Ukrainian, with the remainder being mostly Tartars. In terms of religion, most are Russian Eastern Orthodox. While it's economy is primarily agricultural and tourism, there are substantial offshore natural gas fields. In addition, Russia maintains several large military bases in the Crimea, especially its vast naval facility in Sevastopol, home to the Black Sea Fleet which encompasses surface ships and submarines as well as repair facilities and several naval air wings (think Norfolk Virginia or Portsmouth UK). So, hopefully that put events more in focus.

Europe has been actively trying to attract the Ukraine into the Western orbit since 1991, which it appears to have now successfully done. However, the majority Russians in the Crimea have long voiced their opposition and protested (largely unreported in the West) to remain in the Russian Obit. With the removal of the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych as few weeks ago, Putin made his decision, which he stated was to "protect" the ethnic Russians (and obviously the gas fields and military bases) and introduced troops. President Obama recently sent a US destroyer to "monitor and assess" the situation and dispatched several military surveillance planes to take a look at Russian military movements; more intimidation and public show than anything else since satellites can more easily do the job. Meanwhile, the Crimean Parlaiment has promised to put the entire matter to a public vote---stay with Russia or stay with the Ukraine; independent monitors are expected to be welcome.

While Obama and other Western leaders have spoken to the Russian President regarding situation, Putin has insisted there will be no military engagement unless provoked. Thus far, he has held to that, but for how much longer? The great 19th century German statesman, Otto von Bismarck, introduced a new word to the world, "realpolitik", in engineering Prussia's rise to continental power. At its essence, it means accepting situations, especially political, as they are, not as we'd like them to be. America has historically had a difficult time grasping the weight of its meaning. President Obama can make all the "demands" he wants. The reality is that there are Russian troops on the ground and in force not to mention a sizable naval, air, and logistics resources at its disposal, not to mention both its historical and demographic claims. Secondly, the American People want no part to a conflict of this nature with the Russians.

Lastly, largely thanks to policy failures by Bush II and Obama, America no longer claims the respect it once did among the world community. Obama has little respect to no credibility at home. America's economy continues to sputter; its military exhausted and facing historical reductions back to pre-WWII levels. As the joke goes, Obama is playing checkers while Putin is playing chess. Perhaps. But regardless, I think the name of the game is "Realpolitiks" and Obama is being outmatched.


Black Sea Fleet

Black Sea Fleet Inventory


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