What country is Russia’s next target after Crimea? Some politicians and pundits are parsing every statement made by President Putin and other Russian government officials to answer that question. They say eastern and southern Ukraine, Transnistria, Georgia and the Baltic States are threatened by Russian aggression.
But they are focusing on the wrong question. The important question today is about Ukraine and whether it is in Russia’s national interest to annex eastern and southern Ukraine into the Russian Federation through a combination of regional referendums and possible military action?
Russia has already conducted the cost/benefit analysis on Crimea. Much of it still applies to southern and eastern Ukraine. The benefits from the Russian perspective are likely to be:
• The rights of ethnic Russians to speak Russian would be guaranteed.
• Russia would replace the ineffective interim government and protect ethnic Russians from violent anti-Russian terrorists.
• Through “fair” referendums, Russia could annex eastern and southern Ukraine, and gain a larger buffer between Russia proper and a hostile Ukraine.
• The popularity of President Putin and his administration will stay at all time highs.
• The image of a strong Russia that is unafraid to use its military power to protect its national interests will be strengthened.
While the upsides look good, the downsides are not so good:
• Western sanctions will be increased and have more significant impacts on major and minor businesses, and start to have discernible impacts on the overall economy, e.g., more capital flight, huge drop in credit ratings, FDI, etc.
• The Putin Administration’s support from business, industry and the population will be strained if the sanctions result in economic hardships.
• Ukraine will be in the West’s orbit. The loss of Ukraine will be a blow to the Eurasian Economic Union (Customs Union), which is struggling to gain new members.
• Russia’s allies in the Near Abroad will distance themselves from Russia even further. For example, Belarusian President Lukashenka said publicly that Russia’s annexation of Crimea sets a bad precedent.
• Russia will be condemned by the international community and thrown out of the G-8, isolated like a pariah state (Frankly, I think the West takes this more seriously than Russia does.).
President Putin is a pragmatic leader. It’s likely that he has already weighed the costs and the benefits of annexing eastern and southern Ukraine into the Russian Federation. He will act on the conditions that offer the best chances for more benefits and fewer costs.
Russia is pushing for changes to Ukraine’s constitution to create a federal government, which would give regional governments more political power and autonomy. It would also create the conditions for eastern and southern Ukraine to hold referendums to determine if they would like to stay with Ukraine or join Russia. Russia’s support for regional referendums would entail lower risks and potentially big gains if victorious at the polls.
If instability and ethnic violence, whether organic or incited, continues in eastern and southern Ukraine, Russia’s options are riskier. A military intervention would inevitably result in a confrontation with Ukraine’s defense forces and newly recruited national guards. The potential for the military conflict to escalate would be high. The West would be under pressure to provide more military aid to Ukraine. Russia would also likely be designated as a national security threat for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
Whether you agree or not, Russia demonstrated in Crimea that it would take decisive action to protect its national interests. The costs and the benefits of annexing Crimea were carefully weighed. The same calculus will be done on eastern and southern Ukraine.
The incendiary speculations on Russia’s next target reported in the media will generate readers, but does little to provide any real analysis of the situation. It will also unduly frighten people. For example, the Baltic States were often included on the list of Russia’s targets. That’s the most unlikely option because they are NATO members and would have every member of NATO coming to their aid, including the US.
In the dynamic situation in Ukraine, there is no way of knowing for sure what will happen next. However, having an understanding of Russia’s national interests and those of Ukraine and the West and the costs and benefits of strategic decisions will make you better informed and less prone to be frightened by the wild and irresponsible speculations of so-called opinion leaders who should know better.