What will happen in Ukraine?

All eyes are on the Kremlin. Events in Crimea have escalated in the last few hours and have challenged the notion that Europe had become a war free continent. Russia has sent unidentified troops into a sovereign nation’s territory and is now preparing to “defend its interests” in the region – which, according to the media, is to protect all the Russian speaking people in Crimea.  Ukraine, as expected, has condemned the move and is prepared to defend itself. As for the rest of the world, the reactions have been of shock and a call for the de-escalation of the situation.

War is a likely scenario but not the most likely. However, if war was to break out, Russian troops would easily overpower the Ukrainian military.  Russia has a military force of about 845,000 troops, more than 200,000 of which are stationed in regions near the Ukrainian border. On the other side, Ukraine has still significant but much smaller force of  about 130,000 strong.  These numbers mean that if Russia were to invade, it would probably win the invasion stage of the war, but they do not tell the whole story.

Once Ukraine, is occupied, Russia would have to deal with insurgency. In Crimea, if the troops currently stationed there are not recalled by Moscow, they would have to face a radicalising Tartar minority and some ethnic Russians that might speak the language but prefer to live in an independent Ukraine. Turns out that the latter group is quite big so, it is a mistake to assume that ethnic Russians are Russians.

As Iraq and Afghanistan have showed, insurgency can be problematic, even for the biggest military in the world. Chechnya is another example that Russians might relate to more easily.  And like in the separatist region, there are a lot of mountains in Crimea. So, war would be costly for Russia, in the long run, but also, on a short term perspective.

The international community has been quick to blame Russia for this action and the consequences for the Kremlin could be dire. As American journalist, Fareed Zakaria, mentions, border “countries like Poland that had eased up relations with Moscow will now view it with great suspicion. All European countries will put their relations with Russia under review”, and that will have its economic impact. Even if the EU is faced with this crisis during a moment of weakness – financially and politically – that takes waging war out of the equation, it is still is an economic and diplomatic power to be reckoned. The same goes for the US, that would not want to enter its third war, since the beginning of the century, but can still penalize Russia through other means. Last but not least, we must also consider China, which has partnered up with Russia on several key international policy issues, but has always been a fierce defender of national sovereignty – mostly because it wants to other country to meddle into its internal affairs – and might reconsider its relationship with Moscow following this move.

War seems unlikely because of what it will cost Russia which is no longer a soviet state but a full fledged capitalist economy, with much to loose from all the severed ties. So what does Russia want with Crimea? The answer could be leverage for some sort of economic deal and the possibility of maintaining some political influence over a border country that has been flirting with Brussels and distancing itself from Moscow.

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