Was Crimea Worth It?

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/14):

Was Crimea worth it? [editorial tone – neutral/objective]

Pros
* Secures major Black Sea naval base; Ukraine no longer able to link it to gas discounts.
* Demonstration that Russia still counts to putsch leaders, pro-Russia elements in S/E Ukraine, and the West. From a realist, non-sentimental perspective, it’s better to be feared than laughed at.
* Massive surge in popularity for Putin and national unity.
* Has confirmed a fundamental wedge between the West and the “Rest”/BRICS on global politics. In particular, both China and India have tacitly supported Russia’s position.

Uncertain
* If it succeeds, it will serve as a beocon on the hill for Ukrainians. (In the same way that “free” and “democratic” Ukraine was supposed to serve as a beacon on the hill for Russians tiring of Putin’s authoritarianism, though that didn’t quite work out). If it fails, of course, it will create the opposite effect. But I think the former is likelier than the latter.
* Western sanctions are fairly moderate for now, mostly touching just a part of the elites. Arguably, some of these will actually have positive effects, with Russia forced to accelerate economic ties with East Asia and to lessen its dependence on Western institutions (e.g. a national payments system independent of Visa/Mastercard).

Cons
* Russia loses any talking points it might have had as a strict adherent to international law (but this wasn’t worth much in the first place). Ukrainians have become less positive towards Russia; in particular, support for NATO accession, always low, has recently soared. It’s unclear whether this is temporary or permanent. Considering the economic and political straits Ukraine is in, one strongly suspects that the Crimea/Russia issue will quickly move from the forefront in the next few months.
* Pundits might talk of Russia “winning Crimea, but losing Ukraine.” I disagree. Ukraine, at least as a unitary whole, was lost on February 22.
* Kicked out of G8, freeze on OECD accession, NATO cooperation – negative but of marginal import.
* Deficit territory in fiscal terms (but irrelevant in the big picture).

Overall
I think that this all adds up to a big overall plus. True, assigning different weights to these factors could move it down to a minor plus or a even a neutral position, but I just don’t see how one could possibly pass it off as a strategic error or blunder.

Navalny and Sanctions

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/14):

While Gorbachev supports Crimea’s return, Navalny is helping the EU to compile sanctions on those who made it possible (http://www.alde.eu/uploads/media/Crimea_list_FBK_ALDE.pdf).

All ideology aside, I really do think that this marks the end of him as a serious politician. (Note that I say this as someone who unlike most pro-Putinists predicted he’d get a high result in the Moscow elections).

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/14):

Couple of quick notes:

(1) Agree with Alexander Mercouris that the US bought into its own propaganda of “Putin’s billions” and has visa banned/frozen the assets of Timchenko, Gunvor, Kovalchuk, Rotenbergs, and other businessmen seen as close to Putin. Looks like its following the lead of its media and Navalny on these matters.

(2) Speaking of whom, I’ve always thought those who said Navalny was a CIA asset conspiracy theorists. Considering the close correlation between his own suggestions in the NYT and those the US just sanctioned, I will now have to seriously reconsider. The only unusual thing is that it seems America’s asset is leading it by the nose, as opposed to the other way round (though this is by no means unprecedented, recall “Curveball”).

(3) At this point, it would be not only proportionate but also poetically just to visa ban those US journalists who spread the story of Putin’s billions.

(4) While noting that these steps are run completely afoul of the rule of law and due process that the West pretends to care about so much, it is my impression that the vast majority of Russians (including myself) either do not care or in fact support these sanctions. It will help Putin to nationalize the elites and (in the long-run) help Russia diversify its economy and its relationships with non-Western Powers.

Five Myths about the Crimean Referendum

As voting gets underway – and by all accounts, it seems to be overwhelmingly heading for the pro-secession choice – it’s worthwhile to dispel four common but erroneous beliefs about it.

(1) The referendum is unconstitutional.

Where political power in Ukraine rests today.

Where political power in Ukraine rests today.

This is true enough, as all of Ukraine would have to vote on it. But there is one big catch: The Ukrainian Constitution has been null and void since around February 22, 2014, when the Kiev mob overthrew a democratically elected President and the opposition seized power.  If the new regime absolutely insists on constitutional niceties, then it should dissolve itself and bring back Yanukovych from Rostov. This is hardly going to be happening anytime soon, so the only conclusion to be drawn is that, as in much else, the new regime and its Western backers only discover legality when it suits them. And that’s just fine, it’s “people power” and that’s supposed to be great and all, especially when it’s happening outside the West… but unless one wants to proudly and openly embrace double standards, then the mobs in Crimea have just as much of a right to decide their own destiny as do the mobs in Kiev.

(2) The referendum can’t be fair because of the presence of armed Russian troops.

Of course, nobody is buying the official Kremlin line that there are no Russian troops – or at least mercenaries – operating in Crimea. That said, if we insist on going by this standard, then we’ll have to concede that all Afghan elections since 2001 and all Iraqi elections since 2003 will have to be likewise invalidated. For some reason, I don’t see Washington conceding this anytime soon.

(3) There is no choice – both options are, in effect, a “yes.”

cimeaHere is the form, which is printed in the Russian, Ukrainian, and Tatar languages. The two options are:

  1. Do you support joining Crimea with the Russian Federation as a subject of Russian Federation?
  2. Do you support restoration of 1992 Crimean Constitution and Crimea’s status as a part of Ukraine?

It is also clearly stated that marking both answers will count as a spoiled ballot.

So the option isn’t between joining Russia or joining Russia, but between joining Russia and getting more autonomy. Furthermore, there is a clear and democratic way to vote AGAINST any changes – boycott the referendum (as official Kiev and the Mejlis have been urging Crimeans to do). If turnout is below 50%, the referendum is automatically invalidated.

(4) Most Crimeans do not support independence.

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What If?: Ukraine vs. Russia

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/14):

I’m almost certain it won’t happen, but it’s always fun to consider these what-if military scenarios.

Namely, Ukraine vs. Russia.

In terms of numbers, it will be about 100K vs 150K – Russia has more, of course – 300K in the ground forces – but can only devote a certain percentage of its forces to one theater (so divide by two for air and armor too). Ukraine will of course try to call up reservists, but their military worth is negligible and in any case the reported response rate (1.5% from the Orange provinces) is minimal anyway. Most of Russia’s soldiers here will be kontraktniki; most of Ukraine’s soldiers are its last crop of conscripts, halfway through their one year draft, and a sprinkling of professionals.

As many people have pointed out, the loyalties of these troops – especially in the east – are questionable. Even a few cases of desertion can wreck morale across the board.

For all intents and purposes Ukraine now has no navy.

It has 120 modern fighters, but of these, only 40 can be classed as active. Russia has 500, of which almost all are active. Due to budget problems, Ukrainian pilots have enjoyed fewer flight hours than Russian ones, and as such will also be less experienced. Russia will have total air superiority after the first few days.

Tanks are the one area in which Ukraine isn’t totally outmatched. Ukraine has around 350 of what can be considered active, modern MBT’s. Russia has 1,300, plus a further 1,500 upgraded T-72’s. Ukraine also has many T-72’s, but they are all rusting away in storage and will be unusuable. It does have 700 active upgraded T-64’s, yet even upgraded, they are still rather obsolete.

The critical big unknown is Ukraine’s air defense. If it holds its own, then Ukrainian and Russian armor can clash on equal ground, at least for some time. Georgia’s air defense, likewise Soviet legacy, wracked up an impressive (for their small scope) set of kills in 2008. A lot will depend on whether the Russians have managed to draw lessons from that episode. If however it turns out to be ineffective, then Ukraine’s armor will consist of smoking hulks of metal within two weeks, and Russia’s entrance into Kiev within the month.

I am assuming no NATO intervention, which is politically very unlikely even in this extreme case. In any case, it will take months to effect the necessary buildup, by which time – even in the best case scenario for Ukraine – the campaign will have been long over.

#warnerd #armchairgeneral

Crimea Info

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/15):

It’s very uncharacteristic of the Kremlin to blatantly violate international law (they typically make sure to follow its letter). So what explains the increasingly unequivocal signs of Russian military involvement in Crimea?

The fact of the matter is that Russia has a legal right to military transit across Crimea SO LONG AS it informs the Ukrainian authorities. THE CATCH – whom does it consider to be such? Yanukovych, not the putschists in Kiev.

Revolution

Reprinted from Facebook (2018/02/15):

From what I am observing on Twitter, things are rapidly spiraling beyond our usual frames of reference so far as Ukraine is concerned.

Yanukovych, nowhere to be seen, is fast becoming something of an irrelevance so far as both sides are concerned. The new government is being formed without his input, and he is nowhere to be seen at the “separatist” congress in Kharkov. The revolutionaries now apparently have a super majority in the Rada, and if that is true, his impeachment is now just a matter of time.

Meanwhile, the Rada has also passed a law illegalizing separatist movements period. Whether that will dampen or inflame the incipient centrifugal tendencies in Crimea, Donetsk, and Kharkov remains to be seen.

Shredding Sochi… in a Good Way

After a long break, a new contribution to the Experts Panel:

Shredding Sochi… in a Good Way

Western journalists have been in the business of dismissing Russian achievements and magnifying Russian failures ever since Putin drove them into a collective derangement syndrome – he even haunts their dreams, as recently revealed by the Guardian’s Shaun Walker – so the preemptive besmirching of the Sochi Olympics can’t have surprised anyone.

What is startling, though, is the unusually low competence of the effort, even by the standards of these people that are sarcastically referred to as “democratic journalists” in Russia.

The first and foremost attack revolved around the supposed corruption surrounding the Sochi Olympics. In 2010, the Russian magazine Esquire estimated that 48km of roads around Sochi consumed a cool $8 billion of taxpayer money, a sum that implied the asphalt might as well have been made of elite beluga caviar. Julia Ioffe cheerily transmitted these sophomoric calculations to the Anglosphere. The only problem with these actuarial wisecracks? Said road also included a railway, 50 bridges, and 27km worth of tunnels over mountainous terrain… which presumably made it something more than just a road. What was intended as a metaphor for Sochi corruption turned out to be, ironically, a metaphor for unfounded attacks against it.

There are incessant comparisons to the $8 billion spent during the 2010 Olympics in Canada. But this sidesteps the fact that Whistler was already a world-class ski resort, whereas Sochi’s infrastructure had to be built from scratch and at relatively short notice. The actual event-related costs of the Sochi Olympics are $7 billion, of which only half was directly drawn from the state budget. This is not to say that there was no stealing – of course there was, as corruption is a real problem in Russia, and is especially endemic in the construction industry. Navalny has created an entire website about it, and coordinated a campaign against Sochi with Buzzfeed and The New York Times. But what’s striking is that far from the pharaonic levels of misappropriation we might expected from the tone of the coverage, in most cases the markup was in the order of 50%-100% relative to “comparable” Western projects (and that’s after selecting the most egregious cases). This isn’t “good,” needless to say, but it’s hardly unprecedented in Western experience. In any case, a number of criminal cases have been opened up, so impunity is not guaranteed. (The most prominent “victim,” Akhmed Bilalov, has fled the country and claimed he was poisoned – all true to the form of emigre oligarch thieves from the ex-Sovie Union).

The lion’s share of the $50 billion investment in Sochi – some 80% of it or so – consists of infrastructure projects to make Sochi into a world-class ski resort that will provide employment in the restive North Caucasus, kickstart the development of a Russian snowsports culture, and draw at least some of the more patriotic elites away from Courcheval.

[Read more…]

The Euromaidan Thread

Discuss all things Euromaidan here and vote in the poll (tick as many options as you like).

where-thither-for-ukraine

My own opinion is “Protests die down as Yanukovych reasserts control,” for reasons that I will expound upon in a forthcoming post. But I have made many of the arguments already on my Twitter feed where I, like many other East Europe watchers, have been closely following Ukraine of late.

A Bizarre Pardon

I have no idea what possessed Putin.

Did he think that it would spare him Western criticism in the run-up to Sochi? Of course not. Khodorkovsky was on the back-burner. LGBT rights are West’s stick du jour to beat up on Russia.

Did he think it would improve the legal and investment climate? I sure hope not, because it would mean he is an idiot who laps up the propaganda of those who loathe him.

Did he think it would reflect well on him? Journalists are rushing in to confirm that Putin’s pardon is just as arbitrary as the original indictment. (They have a point – about the former). Even pundits who once excoriated Khodorkovsky as the criminal he was, such as Mark Adomanis, now talk of the “trumped-up charges of fraud and tax-evasion” that put him in prison.

Did he think Khodorkovsky would shut up in gratitude? There was no admission of guilt involve, and the Menatep bandit has begun agitating from his 5-star Berlin hotel already.

Russia desperately needs more Westernization. In any truly civilized country, YUKOS’ campaign of tax evasion and contract killings would have ensured Khodorkovsky would have been locked up and the keys thrown away forever.

Instead, he will busy himself with plotting intrigues, as oligarchs are wont to do in banana republics. The only difference is that Russia doesn’t have bananas.

12/22/2013 EDIT: Alexander Mercouris has penned what I consider to be the defining article on this: Khodorkovsky – The End of the Affair? Go, read.

The End of the Russia Debate. (For Real, This Time)

I should have never allowed myself to be talked out of it in the first place.

The primary reasons are the same as before: Low activity rates, to the extent that genuine discussions are once again being overtaken by spam in terms of volume. This is in spite of substantially increased security measures since then.

But there are also some wider reasons, such my online presence being spread too thin by projects such as the forum. You have to prune these things from time to time. Inspired by the recent events at RIA, I feel it is time for a rationalization and consolidation of my own projects.

The forum will go offline as of the New Year.

THAT SAID, should another forumer or group of forumers wish to continue the forum, I will be happy to turn over the passwords and the forum software license for the common good. The only condition is that I will no longer be liable for the site’s active administration and paying hosting fees. If you are interested, please contact me and we will discuss this further.