Kiev’s dilemma

The announcement in Kiev this morning that the Ukranian Government has begun to mobilize the country’s reservists added to the already tense situation in Ukraine. This move, ostensibly to counter the apparent takeover of Crimea by the Russian military, may not be the solution that acting President Oleksander Turchynov is looking for.

Turchynov is dealing with significant limitations in this crisis. Firstly, the Russian military vastly outnumbers the Ukrainian forces in Crimea. With the airports and other key installations in the region under Russian control, Moscow can reinforce its troops much more easily than Kiev can.

Additionally, as it has become apparent that the interim government in Kiev does not speak for all Ukrainians and that the country is split between those that lean towards Russia and those that lean away from it, one must wonder as to the loyalty of the military to the government in Kiev. If the general population seems to be split between native Russian speakers and native Ukrainian speakers, would it not be logical that the Ukrainian military would reflect those divisions, especially as mandatory conscription to the military was still in effect in Ukraine through 2013?  Can Kiev be certain that all of the various units of the Ukrainian military will carry out orders in the event of war with Russia?

This problem is confounded by the precarious political situation that the interim government finds itself in. As an un-elected government that came to power thanks to a protest movement supported by many, but not all Ukrainians, the interim government lacks legitimacy in the eyes of many Ukrainian citizens. This is particularly true in the pro-Russian East which served as the political stronghold of the now deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych. A decision on the part of Turchynov to send Ukrainian troops into battle in Crimea might well cost him the industrial East, a development that he, and Ukraine’s lagging economy, can ill afford.

If Turchynov believes that he can rely on the West to support him in a military confrontation with the Russian military, he might want to consider Plan B. The West will certainly not commit military forces to aid Ukraine and it is more concerned with achieving a peaceful end to the crisis than with fulfilling the goals of Ukrainian nationalists. If the West is convinced that Putin will halt his army in exchange for an agreement giving even greater autonomy to Crimea leading to de-facto Russian control of the peninsula, it will accept such an agreement. The United States and the European Union are not about to fight Russia over an autonomous region with an ethnic Russian majority that was traditionally part of Russia. If the Russian army doesn’t stray from Crimea into other parts of Ukraine, the West will live with it.

It appears that the interim government in Kiev lacks the military strength to confront the Russians and risks losing control over the economically vital regions of Eastern Ukraine if it tries to do so. The interim government should understand its limitations and accept that the Russian occupation of Crimea can only be dealt with through diplomatic means. Turchynov can defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity or he can work to achieve political and economic stability but he cannot do both.

About the Author
Yona holds an M.A. in International Relations from Hebrew University.