Over the last two days, the Western press has descended upon the southern Ukrainian city of Sevastopol. The reason? Kremlin saber-rattling and overblown talk of a Russian invasion in Crimea. If the journalists reporting from Crimea were able to separate Russian media hype from facts and take a step back to think logically and strategically, it would dawn upon them that such an intervention could only happen if Vladimir Putin were a raving lunatic.
In a city teeming with Russian nationalists who either serve in the Russian Black Sea Fleet, have family members serving in the Fleet or are retirees from the Fleet, some seem to have forgotten that Crimea is not only Sevastopol and not only Russian. Nor does the press ponder the implications of such a move by Russia, nicely serving as the latest group of “useful idiots” for the Kremlin.
Is Russia capable of invading Crimea?
Yes, of course. Russia already has a sizeable military force on the peninsula at its Black Sea Fleet’s base in Sevastopol, including a marine infantry brigade. Additional reinforcements could be brought in through the Russian-held airfield at Kacha or over the narrow Kerch strait from the Kuban peninsula.
Ukraine’s military has a much smaller force, largely made up of units of the Ukrainian Navy, on the peninsula. Most ships of the Ukrainian Navy are based in Sevastopol alongside the Black Sea Fleet, which dwarfs it. Part of the Ukrainian Navy presence on the peninsula is a Marine Infantry Battalion in Feodosia, which was planned to be employed against the Euromaidan in Kyiv, but has now returned to its base. The Ukrainian Army has no sizeable presence on or near Crimea, while the Air Force has a Fighter Regiment equipped with MiG-29 in Belbek and three Air Defense battalions spread out over the peninsula.
The battle-readiness of the Ukrainian forces is questionable, as is their willingness to fight were Russia to choose to use force. In fact, a swift strike could well eliminate most of the Ukrainian military presence in Crimea, as all the units, except for the Marine Infantry Battalion and one Air Defense Battalion, are located within the Sevastopol area.
Is Russia in a position to occupy Crimea?
Yes, absolutely…with a substantial force and at a high price. Crimea, especially the entire southern coast, is a mountainous place with a highly jagged coastline. Although Russians make up the majority of the population, 25% of the population is Ukrainian and 15% are Crimean Tatars. Expelled from Crimea by Stalin in 1944, the Tatars only began to return to their ancestral land after the fall of the Soviet Union. From 1.6% of the population in 1989, their numbers have risen tenfold and all of the new arrivals left Russia or Uzbekistan to come “home.” The Tatars abhor the idea of Crimea returning to Russia. They would undoubtedly wage a spirited and bloody guerrilla war against any Russian occupation force.
Besides garrisoning the peninsula itself with a sizeable force, Russia would need to organize a large number of coastal defense formations to guard against possible Ukrainian military landings and against Islamist fighters coming to join the fight alongside the Muslim Tatars. Moreover, Russia would need to guard the coast against Turkish supply transports getting to Crimea, as Turkey considers itself a guarantor of the Crimean Tatars’ well-being. Russia would also need a large mechanized force to guard the Isthmus of Perekop against a Ukrainian counterattack and would have to move its fleet from Sevastopol to the much smaller and not yet finished military harbor of Novorossiysk to avoid the constant threat of Ukrainian air and missile attacks.
Russia barely managed to control Chechnya (area 17,300 km², population 1.2 million) with about 60,000 troops; the manpower needed to control Crimea (27,000 km², population 2.3 million) would be almost double. A prolonged occupation and guerilla war would also wreak havoc on Crimea’s tourist based economy, which would stir up further unrest against the occupation and require large subsidies to at least keep the Russian population under control.
Will Russia invade Crimea?
No, it won’t. Even though Putin might gain prestige at home in the short term, the repercussions would be so grave and destabilizing to his regime, that there is no scenario under which he would choose to invade. Some of the repercussions include:
- The last time someone tried invading a neighboring country to annex it or parts of it was in 1990 when Saddam Hussein occupied Kuwait. Invading Crimea would draw instant and universal condemnation and destroy the last shreds of goodwill the current Russian regime has in the world. Economic sanctions would follow that would wreck the Russian economy and severely curtail the Russian elite’s ability to travel.
- A much more radical government would come to power in Kyiv and most Ukrainians would come to hate Russia passionately. Both would lead to armed clashes in Ukraine’s southeastern regions, clashes which would force Putin to intervene also there or he would massively lose face at home. But intervening in southeastern Ukraine would lead to all-out war between Ukraine and Russia—a war that would seriously drain the manpower and economy of Russia, especially as Ukrainians in the occupied territories would also wage guerilla warfare and force the Russian military to deploy most of its forces to Ukraine. This would inevitably open up new opportunities for Chechen guerillas in the North Caucasus and for Georgia in to take back Russian-occupied territories. Even Azerbaijan and Moldova might be encouraged to seize the moment and strike at their Russian-backed opponents.
- Russia exports most of its gas to Europe through Ukraine and is depended on an uninterrupted flow of European hard currency to prop up its economy and regime. With Ukrainian gas pipelines closed down, only Nord Stream in the Baltic Sea and Yamal in Belarus would be delivering gas to the EU, with the latter pipeline a prime target for sabotage via Ukraine. Indeed, it is doubtful that Europe would buy any Russian gas at all should there be a Russian-Ukrainian war, as every Euro sent to Moscow would be seen as fueling the Russian war machine.
- A Russia willing to attack its neighbor out of a sheer desire to make Putin look strong would reinvigorate NATO. Europe and the US would increase their military budgets significantly, new members would rush into NATO for protection against Russian aggression, and vast amounts would be spent to modernize NATO forces and redeploy them eastwards. A Russia crippled by sanctions and waging an unwinnable war in Ukraine would not have the resources to counter such a NATO expansion in capabilities and troops.
- With the Russian economy tanking, travel curtailed, large numbers of young Russians coming back in caskets from Ukraine, and Russia’s military being driven back on all fronts by a resurgent NATO, the Putin regime would face surging dissent at home, requiring ever-more severe repression, thus further reducing its already-crumbling legitimacy.
So far, Putin has always been most interested maintaining the stability of his regime: invading Crimea would fatally destabilize it. Putin has not (to the best of anyone’s knowledge) lost his mind and started contemplating any kind of military intervention. The massive Russian propaganda blitz about Russians in Ukraine being threatened with extinction by “fascists and nazis” from Western Ukraine and its constant saber-rattling are nothing but Putin’s last desperate attempt to force the new leadership in Kyiv to give him and his satraps a say in the future of Ukraine.
Ukraine’s new leadership is well advised to ignore Putin’s noise and carry on with business as usual. Putin himself knows all too well what ill-advised imperial overreach can do to a socially and economically unstable country. Just as he came to power, he witnessed another megalomaniac and corrupt dictator thrown out of office and into a cell in The Hague, after losing a series of wars and leaving his country economically ruined. To end like Milosevic is not an option for Putin—and neither is invading Crimea.
Thomas Theiner is a writer and production manager. He has previously lived in Kyiv for 5 years and worked at a subsidiary of Ukraine’s biggest film company.