Putin most likely to win in Ukraine

Written 5 March 2014

I was going to publish this later, but I decided to do it now when it’s most relevant.

Recent events in Ukraine are raising fears of war not only between NATO and Russia, but also civil war between  Ukrainians and Russians. Such prospects should not be discounted, considering the great costs that may be at play. Furthermore, most analysts and experts did not predict that the Ukraine crisis would go as far as it has, underscoring how quick and unexpected events in the former Soviet republic can be. It should therefore be considered what may take place in the coming weeks and months and what their effects may be.

Putin is unlikely to give up Crimea or its influence in the Ukraine. The majority of oil pipelines running from Russia to Europe go through the Ukraine and losing control over this strategic asset would mean a weakening of Russian leverage in Europe. Even if such a scenario were to happen, however, Russia would still have significant leverage as there are not many other viable alternative supply sources  for Central Europe. This was proven in 2009 when a dispute over oil prices between Russia and Ukraine led to Russia cutting off its natural gas flows, starving Eastern Europe of most of its gas supply.

While fears that right-wing neofascists will overtake Ukraine may be overblown, it would not be far-fetched to consider that at least some of their policies may be adopted by mainstream parties. This situation is present in Hungary, where the policies of the neofascist Jobbik Party are adopted by the ruling Fidesz Party. Most of the fighters in the streets of Kiev were led by right-wing groups, this serving the purpose of building up their political capital. Furthermore, the Ukrainian parliament’s decision to overturn Russian-language rights only leads into this direction. A Ukraine antagonistic to Russia would be catastrophic for Russian geopolitical aspirations, even more so than a hostile Georgia would be.

The decision to take over the Crimean Peninsula must have been one which had been prepared for a while because of how swift and successful it was. Crimea is not only the most strategic location in the Black Sea, but it can also serve a purpose similar to the one served by Transdniester or South Ossetia and Abkhazia, namely to gain leverage over the countries which claim them. With Crimea taken, Ukraine is surrounded on three fronts serving as a constant warning to its politicians to be careful what moves they make. (This is not to say that the Russians in Crimea did not want independence from Ukraine to begin with.) Russia can also destabilize the Donbas region of Ukraine when it seeks to do so. While I expected Russian intelligence to stir up calls for independence in the Crimea, I did not expect an invasion. With this in mind, it is important to pay attention to the Donbas region.

It is possible to see a federation develop in the Ukraine split along ethnic lines. This will give more autonomy to Russian regions of Ukraine and also allow Russia more leverage in Ukrainian politics, since the autonomous governors of the Russian regions would be more open to Russian influence. Furthermore, the oligarchs in Ukraine play a much larger role in politics than they do in Russia — the top 50 wealthiest Ukrainians have a net worth equal to 85% of the country’s GDP. The oligarchs continue to play a huge role in politics, with large segments of parliament being in the oligarchs’ back pockets and two of them being appointed governors of Russian regions. The oligarchs are primarily motivated by business and if Russia is able to give them good offers, then they will probably fall within Russian influence, just as Yulia Tymoshenko did. Of course, they would have to do this with a semblance of support for EU integration, for fear of bringing about another Euromaidan.

The scenario is stacked in Putin’s favor. It is likely that he will use a combination of control over Crimea, influence in the Russian regions of Ukraine, and the oligarchs to control Ukrainian politics. Of course, this leaves out the vast majority of Ukrainians who do not want to see their country split apart and taken into control by Putin. It is possible that Euromaidan was just the beginning of the Ukrainian revolt. And with Russian and Ukrainian soldiers confronting each other in Crimea, it is possible that war may break out. Those who claim that the West scored a victory over Putin may have jumped the gun.


While it is amusing to watch Obama and Kerry completely botch the theater performance they are supposed to be putting on now (you know, outrage, condemnation, etc)… the fact remains that the US has successfully deposed the Ukranian government and Putin is short one puppet state of 45 million people. So kind-of hard to say that Putin is winning, even if he takes control of Crimea. (it is just one province!)

Hi there! Thanks for the comment!

If Putin only sought Crimea, he would, of course, not be in a winning position. However, as I addressed in my post, there are much more important and larger assets within Ukraine which Putin either has control over, or could easily take control of, including: the Donbas region; the oligarchs (who control 85% of the economy); and the pipelines. The EU and the West does not have much leverage, other than the carrot of EU membership — which would only come after years of negotiation. Sanctions are another option, but this could be costly since Putin can easily retaliate. Overall, I don’t see much of a likelihood that the West will come out on top.