Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

As Russia tightens its grip on Crimea and unrest continues to destabilize Ukrainian cities, flashes of similar Kremlin behavior now nearly 25 years ago return in terrifying Technicolor.  Old Cold Warriors in the West and in Moscow seem to be fighting the same struggles for European geopolitical dominance that were supposed to have ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  

It is clear that certain basic Russian goals and insecurities have remained unchanged from the days of the Czars when the Russian Empire expanded its reach moving in all directions of the compass exponentially, pushing the Ottoman Empire out of the Caucasus and Crimea in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and earlier the Swedes from the Baltics and Finland and the Poles from parts of Lithuania and Ukraine. 

 Putin’s Circle of KBG Friends

It should come as no surprise that the tactics the Kremlin now uses in Ukraine uncannily resemble those of the Soviets in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the other Soviet republics between 1986 and 1991 because, well, Putin’s closest national security advisors –like he himself – are former mid-level KGB colleagues from those very years – still reportedly smarting from the Soviet Union’s collapse and impervious to the potential economic or other negative fallout from their risky military moves.   

The first problem is with their outdated game plan, one that failed in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the world has changed in ways to suggest that the KGB’s 25 plus year old playbook will have no better chance of protecting Russia’s long term interests in Ukraine than it did in Eastern Europe and the Baltics.   

Back to Molotov?  But where’s Ribbentrop?  

The Kremlin’s days’ old muscular encroachment on the territory of its neighbor makes a laughing stock of the treaty which the Russian Federation signed with Ukraine in 1994. Based on the terms of this treaty, Russia agreed to respect Ukrainian sovereignty including over Crimea and Ukraine’s eastern regions in exchange for Ukraine’s willingness to relinquish its nuclear weapons to Moscow. During the same period, Ukraine granted the Russian Federation a long term lease on the Russian military base in Crimea so Russia’s supposed fear of an eviction notice is unwarranted. 

The security guarantors of the 1994 treaty – which is supposedly still in force – are Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom.  This gives the US and the UK at least some diplomatic leverage – something the Kremlin has conveniently forgotten in its questionable complaints about “outside interference.”   

 Yes, Russia is still able to occupy Crimea by force, manipulation and employment of the fear factor – but did it ever really leave? And to whom should Crimea rightfully belong?

Whether Crimea rightfully belongs to Ukraine, is returned to Russia, even ceded to Turkey (the successor state to the Ottoman Empire after all) or restored to the original descendants of the Crimean Tatars (12% of the peninsula’s population) whose ancestors fought the Czarist armies and who the Russians have treated abominably over the centuries is an unresolved historical question.  It’s one of those disputed regions – like Jerusalem – where there is no right answer, but at the very least, international law indicates that Russia’s recent power grab of the territory is illegal.     

The Russian Federation’s Kaliningrad Oblast – stuck between Lithuania and Poland – is another disputed Russian military enclave of a similar nature.  This naval base on the south coast of the Baltic Sea – surrounded by salt water to the north and flanked by NATO allies to its east and west – is another one the Russians have clung to like Velcro. This despite the fact it has no contiguous boundaries with Russia, must be supplied through Lithuania or by air and sea, and defends the Russians against exactly whom?  The Gotlanders?  It’s one of those vulnerable military vestiges of past days as is, in many respects, Crimea or, for that matter long abandoned Crusader fortresses throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East.  Somehow, however, I don’t see the Papacy planning to return Christian soldiers to man the barricades of those forbidding long ago ruined outposts any time soon.  

To a large extent the real issue for the Kremlin is the revanchism that stems from wounded Russian nationalism. It’s as much about obtaining support from a nationalistic populace whose standard of living is likely to decline as the international price of oil and gas drops as a result of increased supplies and dropping demand from the fracking of shale oil.  It was a precipitous price drop during the late 1970s and 1980s that blindsided and sunk the Soviet Union. Moscow’s Achilles’ heel is an economy that still relies too heavily upon the global price and sale of these volatile substances.  But Europe, its major market, is less dependent on Russian oil and gas exports than it was just a few years ago.  

The KGB’s take-over playbook 

So here’s the scenario:  the Kremlin – looking for faithful allies and protected borders – buys off local leaders – or if they won’t succumb to bribes or veiled threats of force foments unrest through the “divide and conquer” principle setting a local leadership squabbling amongst itself.  Russian security instigates pro-Russian demonstrations among minority Russian populations in the region or republic using the fear factor which is spread by unsubstantiated KGB-manufactured propaganda.

Russian troops or plain-clothed security forces are sent in (the troops were already based in Crimea but shady reinforcements in black ski masks showed up on the scene to hammer home the point of Russian domination in case anyone missed it) who were sent to protect the now fearful Russian minority. 

The next move?  Holding a hastily arranged “popular” referendum in the territory Russian troops now occupy to seal the illegal takeover.  Smacks of Hitler’s takeover of the Sudetenland, Stalin’s of the Baltic Republics during and after World War II and the Kremlin’s hiving off of regions of the Republic of Georgia in 2008 after the Georgian leaders made clear they did not want to remain in Moscow’s orbit and would prefer to align with the West.

The Soviets never reached the playbook’s last stage in the Baltic Republics in the tumultuous years and months before August 1991 – not because the West intended to counter the Russians militarily – just read Secretary of State James Baker’s memoirs The Politics of Diplomacy if you’re in any doubt – but because of internal weaknesses engulfing the Soviet Union, the country’s precipitous economic decline, its military overreach and the rise of the national Popular Fronts in the Republics as well as in Russia itself.  These Popular Fronts included Ukrainian nationalists under the banner of Rukh.

Last but not least, Yeltsin’s election to the presidency of the Russian Federation provided the rise of an unexpected center of power that challenged the Kremlin and would-be coup makers at the critical moment.

Not only had the Soviet Union fallen apart economically by 1991 but the internal cohesion of the Soviet government was on the ropes.  Gorbachev’s modernization plans – which would have ceded much authority to the republics – frightened a coterie of old-style hard-liners in the Kremlin. But their poorly executed plot to oust him and install a back-to-the-future style Soviet government fizzled in a much televised drunken orgy.  It fell to Russian Federation President Yeltsin, the only high level popularly elected leader in Moscow, and whom the Bush administration had all but ignored, to pick up the pieces.

Yeltsin recognized Baltic independence but it took time, care and OSCE monitors for the Estonians and Latvians to ensure the Russian minorities living in those republics that their rights were not only respected but that the fear-mongering instigated by the KGB had no teeth.  Lithuania, in contrast, had never experienced the influx of post WWII Russian workers that the other two did. The Lithuanian population therefore was far more homogenous, impervious to Russian propaganda fueled irredentism and, perhaps as a consequence, more willing to challenge Soviet dominance.  Today, all three Baltic Republics are NATO and EU members.  The percentages of native Russian speakers in each have declined over the years since independence but they are not gone. 

But what are Putin’s goals for Ukraine? 

Or, to put it another way, what are his greatest fears and how can they be understood, addressed – or countered?  Is the question one of power and influence or power and physical domination?  If so where does Russian domination of its neighborhood end?

And how?

 Putin and his circle of friends, like the Czars and the Soviet leaders before, believe strongly in the importance of geographic spheres of influence.  Although the Russians may well have conquered the tiny peninsula of Crimea where their troops were already dug in, they are in danger of losing Kiev, the country’s capital and much –if not all – of the rest in the future. 

If Putin also thought he could get away with hiving off pieces of the country’s east – the industrial heart of the country – or better yet, replacing the new government in Kiev with people more to his liking he would do so. 

This is evident by Kremlin-instigated pro-Russian demonstrations in the cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk designed to oust the newly appointed leaders sent by Kiev, the Russian Government’s refusal even to meet with the new Ukrainian leaders and the refuge Putin has provided the deposed Ukrainian President Yanukovych despite their personal animosity and the revelations of Yanukovych’s Saddam Hussein style-profligacy.

Western media reporting suggests a far closer division in percentages between native Ukrainian and Russian speakers in Ukraine but the data does not hold this up.  The differences are more along the lines of 70-30% with a far heavier concentration of Russians in the eastern cities not to mention the many people who speak both languages. A major survey taken in 2010 indicated then that native Russian speakers did not feel the least bit intimidated or fearful to live in Ukraine – until, that is, the KGB decided to turn the linguistic divide into a separatist issue within the past weeks.

So what is Putin’s greatest nightmare? Most likely the expansion of the NATO alliance onto his southwest doorstep. But if the Russians push the Ukrainian government into a corner through continued application of the KGB Playbook it might just happen.

Ukraine is not Georgia.  It is not part of the Caucasus and it cannot be as easily isolated as any of the far smaller Caucasian Republics. It is European with EU and NATO member Poland to the West and North. It is an important geographic region with a population of 46 million – the majority of whom are Ukrainian who see that despite all the EU’s problems, life is better there.

With the right governance Ukraine could and should have good relations with both East and West just as Finland does.  This is what the EU-Ukrainian Association (Finland is a full member of the EU) agreement – which the Kremlin thwarted for its own venal reasons – was designed to encourage.  Yes, a divided Ukraine is one possible outcome but it could also trigger a NATO response that could ultimately throw an Article 5 security guarantee over Kiev.  Would NATO forces moving another step closer to Moscow really serve the Kremlin’s interests or assuage Putin’s worst nightmares?  Is that what Putin and his circle of friends really want? 

From the WV Archives:                     

Ukraine:  Between Carrot and Stick, December 2013.

The Soviets, the Sinatra Doctrine and the Beginning of the Cold War’s End, November 2011.

Molotov-Ribbentrop and Russia’s Selective Amnesia, September 2009.