A Russian soldier patrols the anti-submarine ship 'Muromets' in the port of Sevastopol

A Russian soldier patrols the anti-submarine ship ‘Muromets’ in the port of Sevastopol

By Tony Connelly, Europe Editor, Simferopol

Although the referendum on Crimea’s future is not until 16 March,
Russia’s actions are already birthing a new creation.

The speed of Moscow’s invasion-by-stealth has been breathtaking.

Notwithstanding the clear mismatch in military strength between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, it has been stunning in its efficiency, ever since unidentified gunmen took over the Crimean parliament on 27 February.

At the time of writing 12 Ukrainian military, air and naval bases, including missile defence stations, have been neutralised by Russian troops backed by local pro-Russian militia.

The main roads into Crimea are subject to armed checkpoints, and confident enough are the forces there that international observers from the OSCE have been turned back three times.

Normal life here is carrying on, albeit under the shadow of the Russian flag, and subject to intimidation by groups of men in paramilitary fatigues.

Kiev is powerless to extend its authority and the West, while striving to present a united front, is torn between the instinct to punish and the rationale of engagement.

While a tentative diplomatic process is there on paper – ie, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov are still in contact – the West’s demands and the Kremlin’s uncompromising response mean there is a continental gulf between both sides.

Washington’s demands, supported by the EU, that Russia pull its troops back to their legally constituted bases around the Black Sea coast, have been flicked away by Moscow’s blithe insistence that the heavily-armed, professionally uniformed soldiers, seen daily being carried back and forth in increasingly long columns of Russian-registered troop-carriers, are simply “citizen self-defence units.”

In the interregnum before next Sunday’s disputed plebiscite, there is a relentless struggle in the media and in academia to try and fathom President Vladimir Putin’s strategy.

While the EU has borne the brunt of criticism for underestimating the importance of Ukraine to the Russian worldview (Washington has been less in the firing line since it has long regarded Ukraine as Europe’s problem), Russia’s military escalation, and the state-sponsored hyperbole justifying its actions, have prompted a drastic rethink.

In German chancellor Angela Merkel’s reported view, Putin is now “in another world.” But close observers argue that Crimea is simply the logical extension of Putin’s long evolving strategy towards the former Soviet footprint.

A former KGB officer he has more than once lamented the passing of the USSR, or at least the global power it projected.

Since the economic chaos and pessimism that gripped Russia in the 1990s, Putin has been determined to restore Russian self-confidence, swapping a Marxist-Leninist doctrine for a nebulous Russian, Orthodox, and pan-Slavic worldview.

The strategy involves sponsoring beleaguered (or simply outnumbered) Russian speakers in neighbouring republics, destabilising that republic, and then sending in Russian troops.

It has worked in Moldova, where Russian troops are present in the disputed territory of Trans-Dniestr), and in Georgia, where Russian speakers in the disputed regions of Abhkazia and South Ossetia were flooded with Russian passports as a pre-cursor to a Russian invasion in 2008.

In some cases the rulers in these republics contributed to the sense of crisis that Moscow exploited – the government in Tblisi spoke of a Georgia for the Georgians, and are blamed for firing the first shots in the 2008 war – while in other cases Russia has appeared to overplay its hand (as in the current situation in Crimea).

In all cases, despite a clamour of protest and threat of sanctions, Putin has gotten away with it.

While the strategy has allowed Moscow to use troops in lands that are far away from Brussels, Putin’s antagonism to his western neighbourhood entering the EU/Nato orbit has required a more subtle policy until now (ie, threatening to place missiles in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the doorstep of EU members Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, offering Ukraine soft loans or, in turn, threatening to switch of gas supplies, which happened in 2009).

Whether Putin wants to annexe Crimea completely, or to leave it as a Russian protectorate with deep autonomy inside Ukraine, thereby granting Moscow unrivalled leverage over a cowed administration in Kiev, remains to be seen.

James Sherr, associate fellow in Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme, believes Moscow has three aims.

“First, to make Ukraine ungovernable by undermining the executive and by depriving outside stakeholders such as the EU and IMF of predictability and confidence.

“Second, to impose on Ukraine a Western-sanctioned constitutional ‘solution’ based on federalisation (which, under current conditions, means disintegration) and a special status for Crimea.

“Third, to show Kiev, Brussels, and Washington that nothing can be achieved in Ukraine without Moscow’s consent. In sum, Russia wants to reduce Ukraine to subservience—or chaos,” he writes in a memo for Carnegie Europe.

Owning Crimea would not come without a price, however. It’s estimated that running the peninsula would cost Russia $6 billion a year.

The insousiance with which the Kremlin has swept aside the West’s outrage would suggest that Moscow is prepared to pay a political and economic price in order to maintain Ukraine as a docile neighbour.

That means the kind of sanctions and punitive measures Washington and Brussels are contemplating appear to have serious limitations, not least because the level of European exports to Russia is almost double that coming in the opposite direction.

But some observers, like Mark Galeotti, a professor at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, believe that some targetted or “smart” sanctions, aimed at asset freezes and visa bans, may give Europe and America some leverage.

Assessing that Putin’s Ukraine policy is now being driven by a small cabal of advisors around the Russian leader, Professor Galeotti argues that, while these figures have no asset exposure in the West, there are many others within the Kremlin elite who do have significant assets in London, the South of France, Florida and so on.

Should the West manage to target them, and the MPs in the Russian Duma who supported both the invasion of Ukraine and Crimea’s pro-Russian faction in its secession bid, then it could undermine their support for Putin, on whom they rely to maintain their considerable wealth.

Interestingly, last year President Putin publicly complained that Russia’s politico-oligarchy should no longer invest their wealth in the West.

There are others, though, who argue that Putin is canny enough to leave the door open to a compromise.

He has already stated that whoever wins the May 25 parliamentary elections in Ukraine will have a legitimate mandate to rule the country.

That would permit a scenario where a new government in Kiev, saddled as it is with appalling debts, could reach a settlement over Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, a settlement that would be favourable to Moscow and one the West would be anxious to support.

That would disappoint the pro-Russian politicians in the Crimean parliament, feted last week in Moscow, who declared not only that the referendum would merely rubberstamp the parliament’s decision to join Russia.

And given the triumphalist, Kremlin-sponsored street demonstrations and open-air concerts welcoming Crimea’s annexation – most Russians would say it is being re-united with its lost peninsula – it may undermine Putin’s strong-man image if he does not go all the way and seize the region, which is, of course, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

But for now he remains in charge, and his poll ratings have risen to their highest in two years.