Analysis by Keith Rankin.
Having watched Vladimir Putin’s somewhat rambling speech on Al Jazeera yesterday, I think we can be sure that he does have a clear ambition to create an empire based on the ethnic concept of the Viking ‘Rus’ (refer my recent Living with Ambiguity); a concept that would ideally (for Putin-supporting Russians) encompass modern Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as its identity core.
Having noted that, such an empire can be formal or (as in the American style of imperialism) informal. Explicitly, Putin does not subscribe to the Wilsonian concept of nations and nationalism (a concept of territorial fundamentalism; ref my recent Nations, Territories, and Conflict). What he – and possibly most Russians – clearly will not tolerate is a Ukraine playing a regional role comparable to the role that Cuba was trying to play in 1962.
We may note that this Russian perspective on Ukraine is fully comparable with Thomas Jefferson’s 200-year-old perspective on the lands that became Canada, and Adolf Hitler’s more recent perspective towards Austria.
Now that Mr Putin has recognised the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ as independent nations – giving them the client-status in his eyes – much as he sees Belarus – what may be next? (And note that yesterday’s action would be a small-scale equivalent of the United States formally recognising Taiwan as a fully independent nation state.)
This latest development puts the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘republics’ (separatist ‘Donbas’) into the same basket as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This contrasts with Crimea which is recognised by Russia as a full province of the Russian Federal state.
(As an aside, Ukraine reported 427,000 Covid19 cases in the last two weeks, equivalent to 3,720 daily cases in New Zealand. And Ukraine recorded 3,250 covid deaths in that period, equivalent to 28 daily deaths with covid in New Zealand. At the end of November, Ukraine had lost one in 250 of its population to covid, based on ‘excess death’ data. Worse than the USA, but not as bad as Russia.)
Political Geography influences Military Strategy
Attention will most likely next turn to the effectively annexed Sea of Azov, which includes the important Ukrainian (and Azov) seaport city of Mariupol, itself in Ukrainian-held Donetsk. Present Russian decrees would appear to regard all of Donetsk as newly-recognised Russian-aligned territory (ie based on 2014 claimed borders). The Azov situation places more pressure on Odessa, as Ukraine’s principal seaport.
Soon enough, however, attention will soon turn to Transnistria, a largely unrecognised state sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine. The international community recognises Transnistria as a part of the former Soviet Republic of Moldova. Transnistria today operates as a fully-independent, Russian-aligned, nation state. Transnistrian death statistics are reported separately; for example ourworldindata.org report excess covid deaths separately for Moldova and Transnistria.
I noted yesterday morning that Al Jazeera, which normally maps Crimea and all of Donbas as part of Ukraine, mentioned Russian troops in Moldova, on Ukraine’s southwestern border. I am sure that western-leaning Moldova would take exception to that. (The impression given was that Moldova is a Russian-aligned state comparable to Belarus.)
When it comes to military strategy, Robert McNamara once noted the importance of having empathy (but not sympathy!) for your adversary. From a Putin/Russian mindset, the formal recognition of Transnistria could have important benefits.
Moldova (including or excluding Transnistria) is effectively a landlocked country, but close to the delta of the Dniester River. (‘Nistria’ is a transliteration of ‘Dniester’.) There is a salient of Ukraine – within Odessa oblast – that can only be entered by road from Odessa City either through Transnistria or via the Pidyomnyy Mist (Zatoka) Bridge which guards the Dniester estuary. That part of Ukraine seems to be an obvious military target that would give Transnistria access to the Black Sea. Control of that salient would also facilitate a Russian blockade of Odessa, thereby strangling Ukraine’s international commerce.
The international media would do well to pay attention to Transnistria, a place that even Al Jazeera doesn’t seem to have heard of.
Most people – and certainly most mainstream media – seem to be minimally aware of the Russian ‘semi-enclave’ of Kaliningrad. (Kaliningrad has Baltic Sea access to Russia – St Petersburg – but land access only through NATO territory.)
Kaliningrad – formerly Königsberg – was once the heart and principal seaport of East Prussia. It was a proud part of imperial Germany. After Word War One, East Prussia became a German semi-enclave, internationally separated from the rest of Germany by the ‘Polish Corridor’ to the Baltic Sea. This piece of geographical politics – the Polish Corridor – became one of the flashpoints for the 1939 German invasion of Poland that started World War Two (WW2) in Europe. After WW2, the German population of Königsberg was entirely replaced by Russian people.
Kaliningrad – a critically important naval port in Soviet times – is only accessible to the rest of Russia by land through two other countries. It remains important, because, unlike St Peterburg, it is ice-free in winter. The most practical land route from Moscow to Kaliningrad is through Belarus and Lithuania.
I watched Al Jazeera’s Witness program Waiting for Invasion about military conscription in Lithuania. Certainly, Lithuania is at least as inspired to resist Russia as is Ukraine. But Lithuania has fewer than three million people, and the three Baltic states combined have less than seven million inhabitants. All three Baltic states are NATO members.
Russia will be worried about Kaliningrad developing its own separatist leanings; ie a desire for separation from Russia. Putin’s rejection of territorial fundamentalism is unlikely to extend to showing sympathy for Kaliningrad independence. While it’s unlikely that Russia would attack Lithuania – and hence NATO – any time this year, if NATO were to attack Russia militarily, then it would seem likely that a Russian invasion of Lithuania would be a consequence. As well as the not inconsiderable issue of national pride – or ‘prestige’ as we used to call it – Russia would claim its need for land access to its Baltic fleet. And Russia would be wanting to shore up the loyalty of Kaliningrad’s people.
The kind of military strategy that I have pinpointed would seem to be a logical extension of any failure to eventually resolve the present Ukraine crisis in a manner that would be acceptable to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. We can already see that Belarus will never be allowed – at least in Putin’s Russia, and probably not after that either – to contemplate any alliance other than its present arrangement.
Further, Transnistria is located strategically for Russia to place an economic and military stranglehold over Ukraine. And, if NATO responds militarily, Russia is likely to swiftly take steps to secure its Baltic enclave, and at the same time physically isolate the Baltic States of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
In light of recent riots (and Russian intervention) in Kazakhstan – ref Kazakhstan unrest: ‘If you protest again, we’ll kill you’ (BBC, 21 Jan 2022) – it is likely that Russia will seek to cement its ties with that country, also with Uzbekistan, and that an important area of future conflict will be oil-rich Turkmenistan, arguably the weirdest (and least known) country in the world today.
Keith Rankin (keith at rankin dot nz), trained as an economic historian, is a retired lecturer in Economics and Statistics. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.