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Analysis & Opinion
04.05.09 Will There Be A Second Crimean War?
Comment by Andreas Umland

Following the West’s failure to stand up to Russia over its effective annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, nationalist sentiment in Russia remains as strong as ever and qualms about using force beyond Russia’s borders have been dispelled. Andreas Umland argues that the resulting cocktail of over-confidence and jingoistic national temperament could well be exploited by hard-line nationalists to provoke a new war, which would in turn help them to halt and reverse President Dmitry Medvedev’s democratizing policies.

The August 2008 war in the Caucasus was a shock to Russian-Western relations.

The West's timid reaction to the five-day conflict and to the de facto annexation of two Georgian provinces by Russia do not bode well for the future of European security. While the recent renewal of friendly relations between Moscow and Washington as well as the current rapprochement between President Dmitry Medvedev and the liberal Russian intelligentsia give reason for hope, the major source for instability in northern Eurasia remains in place.

A radically anti-Western and decidedly neo-imperialist faction of Moscow's elite has gained a foothold in the Russian governmental apparatus, Putin's United Russia party, electronic as well as print media, (un)civil society, and academia. An array of more or less influential and, often, relatively young ultra-nationalists ranging from newly appointed presidential administration officer Ivan Demidov to popular political commentator Mikhail Leontyev, as well as recently elected Moscow State University professor Alexander Dugin, have become part and parcel of everyday political, journalistic and intellectual discourse in the post-Soviet world.

These developments in the world's largest country and remaining nuclear superpower gains relevance against the background of several unresolved issues in Moscow's former empire, among them the future of the Black Sea section of Russia's naval forces. Currently, the port hosting the Russian Black Sea fleet is the city of Sevastopol, which gained world fame in the 19th century. Already then the major port of the Black Sea fleet, its almost one-year-long siege became the major episode of the 1853 to 1856 Crimean War between the Tsarist Empire on the one side and France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire on the other.

Interethnic violence in the Crimea would put power-holders on both sides under pressure to militarily intervene. As the Russian-Georgian war illustrated, Russia has no qualms about using regular army units, on a large scale, beyond its borders. As most of Crimea's inhabitants are, unlike South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's populations, ethnic Russians, Moscow may feel forced to invade Ukraine and "protect" its compatriots -- whatever the larger implications. The Kremlin's decision-makers may correctly assess the chances of an easy and full military victory on the Black Sea peninsula as slim. Yet a public opinion whipped up with apocalyptic visions and hate-speech by the likes of Leontyev or Dugin would force even moderate Russian politicians to prove their patriotism, and take a "principled" position.

In a confrontation between relatively pro- and radically anti-Western political factions within the Kremlin, Russia's new frame of mind could easily be exploited by Moscow's ultra-nationalists. Encouragement of anti-Ukrainian and separatist forces in Crimea could be seen by the extreme right as a strategy to undermine Russian-Western rapprochement. A resulting Russian-Ukrainian war would be devastating for the relations of the two closely-related nations, and disastrous for European security. In the worst case it could, like in Russia's Chechen wars, mean the death of thousands of Crimeans (including ethnic Russians) and lasting isolation for Russia internationally.

However, it would also discipline President Dmitry Medvedev in the same way that the Russian-Georgian War restricted -- at least, for some time -- the new President's domestic and foreign initiatives. Another irredentist war would transform Russia into something like a fortress with an even more rigid internal regime and less international cooperation. It would again postpone, or even put an end to the Medvedev circle's attempts to re-democratize Russia. Moscow's revisionists may calculate that the political repercussions of an escalation of tensions on Crimea will strengthen their position in Russia. Should they get a chance to manipulate the politics of the Black Sea peninsula, a second Crimean War could become reality.
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