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Will Russia Go to War Over Ukraine? Don’t Bet on It

It is hard for me to see a full-blown war between Russia and Ukraine. There are so few cultural differences between these two countries. Ukraine has its own language, but almost everyone (outside of small villages) speaks flawless Russian. If there is a war between these two countries, it will be a civil war.

Ukraine is being pulled in three directions. The western side of the country, the one that is geographically closest to Europe, wants to be part of Europe and wants to retain its Ukrainian culture. The eastern part, which is more industrialized, is heavily populated by Russians and wants to be part of Russia. And then there is Crimea, the stepchild that feels it has been neglected by its new parent (Ukraine) and wants to be closer to its biological parent (Russia). Just like Sochi, which is also on the warm Black Sea, Crimea is a tourist destination, and from what I’ve heard, it generates a lot of tax revenue that is sent to Kiev but gets little back.

I don’t see Russia conquering Ukraine for one simple reason: Ukraine is not Norway, which has an $800 billion sovereign fund and is extremely wealthy. (I hope I’m not giving Mr. Putin new ideas here.) Ukraine is as poor as Russia would be without oil and gas. At $3,867, the country’s GDP per capita is barely one quarter that of Russia’s ($14,037). There are no synergies between the two countries except that if they were to merge, Russia would have to worry less about the natural gas pipeline that goes through Ukraine to Europe. Putin is anything but dumb or economically illiterate; integrating Ukraine into Russia would be like tying a giant weight to Russia’s neck.

Trying to read Putin’s true intentions is difficult — or maybe not. Putin wants to walk a fine line and not veer too far from the Russian constitution. (In another life he would be a great U.S. lawyer.) Let me give you an example of how he operates. The Russian constitution allows the president only two consecutive (an important word) terms. Putin probably could have done a Bloomberg and changed the constitution to run for a third term, but he didn’t. He helped his then–puppet prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to become president and then championed a change in the Russian constitution to extend the presidential term from four to six years. At the end of Medvedev’s first term in 2012, Putin then ran for president again and won. He virtually guaranteed himself power for 12 years without violating the constitution.

Putin wants to nudge Crimea toward autonomy from Ukraine. Crimea was going to hold a referendum on that issue on May 30, which now will be pushed up to March 25. You may ask, Didn’t Putin just invade another sovereign nation? By placing troops in Crimea, Russia violated international law, but a strong country can justify breaking international law if it considers its actions morally right. The U.S. broke international law by sending SEAL Team Six to Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. The U.S. did not ask and never got permission from Pakistan for our military to cross its borders, so we did violate international law; but not a single U.S. citizen (including present company) was upset about it.

Also, the Russians don’t consider Crimea to really be part of Ukraine because until 1954 it belonged to Russia. Half of its population is Russian. Currently, Russians see their troops in Crimea as peacekeepers, protecting their fellow Russians from “Ukrainian nationalists.” Putin is placing a bet that the upcoming referendum will legitimately (at least in Russian eyes) make Crimea autonomous from Ukraine. Ukrainian law doesn’t recognize this referendum as legitimate, but a few thousand troops on the ground and the presence of the Russian Navy may change Kiev’s mind.

An autonomous Crimea is a Russian Crimea. Maybe Putin, by taking advantage of political instability in Ukraine, will achieve what he really wants: control of a very strategic warm-water port without spilling a single drop of blood. He hinted at as much on Tuesday in his first public comments since the incursion, telling Russian media that he saw “no need” to use force in eastern Ukraine.

The international community, including the U.S., may show its outrage, but options are limited to unfriending Russia on Facebook or — worst case, if things really escalate — unfollowing Russia on Twitter. We will not go to war with Russia over a peninsula that used to belong to Russia. If this story ends at Crimea (no Russian troop movements toward Kiev), then Europe and the U.S. will issue some empty threats and the G-8 will revert to the G-7 for a while. But international rhetoric will die down, especially if Crimean voters opt for autonomy. Russia will keep its “peacekeepers” in Crimea with the blessing of a newly minted “autonomous” republic (which on paper will still be part of Ukraine).

Finally, as a bonus to Russia, Ukraine may become ineligible to join NATO, as its charter prohibits new members that have ongoing territorial disputes. So Putin may be playing three-dimensional chess while the rest of the world is still learning checkers. Or perhaps he is just an egotistical maniac who wants to bring the gang (the former Soviet republics) back together. Time will tell.

Leave a Comment    (14)

  • POST

I think Vitaliy did a great job in this article in describing the political reality of the Crimea issue and this article should be read by anyone making judgment calls about the situation.
I would also ask anyone interested in this issue to take the time and read the history of the area. If you understand the history Putin's move was very predictable and will benefit the political stability of the area.
Last point it must be understood western Ukraine is predominantly Catholic and was introduced as a religion in the areas by the Poles during their countless incursions into the area .
The east is predominantly Russian Orthodox as well as Crimea and was introduced back when Kiev was the capitol of Russia.
Part of Putin's concern is the Fascist Ukrainian national movement who dominate the politics in the western half grab power they may have a religions blood bath on their hands.

Apr 01 2014 at 3:44 PM EST

Alexander Jack

I always thought that Crimea was a mythical creature from Greek mythology...oh wait...that's Chimera.

Putin's got game. He has shown that he knows to to use his presidential powers unlike Obama who would rather gut the US middle class and force them to pay more for healthcare while cutting the wages of the middle class.

Mar 16 2014 at 11:06 PM EST


I think this article is wrong---the kings war against each other. How can you stop at Crimea--if you let Ukraine go and life is better in the new Ukraine than Crimea--you have unrest. If Russia invades Ukraine, it weakens on the world stage--does China step in and take up the "business"? People look at China as a manufacturer but there is more coal/natural gas under China than any country. Putin joins the EU or pushes China ahead.

Mar 13 2014 at 1:07 PM EST

fat robin

I agree that this will all blow over if Crimea is the only area affected. However, the United States will almost certainly rededicate itself to a strong national defense, -- an unintended consequence that Putin may not have thought about.

Mar 12 2014 at 3:19 PM EST


Yes, well written. I hope you are right.

I must say, what if Hawaii or Alaska withdrew from the US, and Russia tried to draw them into the Federation. We would want them back and probably send troops as we did in 1861 South

Then, the Russian Federation raises hell and sends war ships and fighter jets near Hawaii and plenty of financial aide. Would we not be pissed off? Stand down I say and leave it alone Uncle Sam.

Mar 10 2014 at 1:08 PM EST

John Uptain

well written.

Mar 07 2014 at 4:12 PM EST


Very insightful article....But there is one thing that is not mentioned in regards to Putin's motives.....He loves to make Obama look bad, weak.... which of course he is!

Mar 07 2014 at 6:57 AM EST


Maybe you should less look at the GDP per capita in $ but look more to the fact that Ukraine is a very big producer of grains, which is very needed by Russia, which has a lot of lands, but very few crops.

Mar 07 2014 at 5:51 AM EST


Well written insightful article. Putin has accomplished his objective and Crimea will be a part of Russia again.

Mar 06 2014 at 8:36 PM EST

Tom Waller

Very good writing, interesting insights.

Mar 06 2014 at 1:48 PM EST


Hans, what bias do I have?

Mar 06 2014 at 1:02 PM EST

Vitaliy Katsenelson

A great essay and wonderful analysis. Loved the ironic portions of it. Thank you!

Mar 04 2014 at 9:56 PM EST

Dan Broucek

Understandably biased this article. Btw, what do you think of Putin's tossing around with gay people?

Mar 04 2014 at 6:30 PM EST


Ivan Grozny ... was also crazy, but crazy like a fox.

Mar 04 2014 at 1:10 PM EST

patrick grattan