GeoPolitical Forecasts

Forecasts of international political events

Crimean forecast

Players, in order of influence.

1. Vladimir Putin
2. Kiev (the government in Kiev)
3. Ukraine’s population
4. Crimea’s population
5. US/EU
6. Simferopol (the government of autonomous Crimea)
7. Victor Yanukovych

The critical relationship is the one between Putin, Kiev, and Ukraine’s population. Putin is angry because he feels that relationship has been disrupted by interference from the West. Crimea’s future will be decided by negotiations between Putin and Kiev, but Kiev’s ability to negotiate is constrained by the amount of support it has among the population, specifically by the support it has in eastern and southern Ukraine. At the moment it doesn’t matter whether or not opposition to Kiev in eastern Ukraine is due to Russian propaganda or not. What matters is that the opposition exists and weakens Kiev. Without a good post-Yanukovych opinion survey of the country, it’s impossible to know how strong the opposition is. What is known is that there have been sizable protests against the Kievian government, so significant opposition does exist.[2] On the other hand, there’s nothing like a foreign invasion to unite the population of a country behind its government.

Everyone else is playing a supporting role. The US and EU have together offered loans that may exceed the $15 billion that Putin originally offered Yanukovych.[3] That gets them in the game, but it’s not clear how united they are. Former Soviet Bloc countries feel threatened by Russia’s moves, [4] but western Europe needs Russian gas, oil, and metals and Russian trade.[5] British PM David Cameron reportedly will not support trade sanctions against Russia or ban Russian involvement in British financial markets; London’s City needs Russian money. In order to provide a united front, the US and the EU may have to go with a least-common-denominator response that doesn’t hurt anyone’s economic interests, which would be a weak response.

The previous Simferopol government was voted out and a new government voted in as mystery soldiers guarded the Crimean parliament building. The soldier’s identities are a secret; everyone except Russia has figured out that they are Russian. Observers described the parliamentary session as irregular and possibly influenced by the presence of the soldiers.[6][7][8] In fairness, this somewhat mirrors the parliamentary proceedings at Kiev that occurred while the right-wing Maidan self-defense forces guarded the parliament building, along with the constitutional irregularity of the vote that removed Yanukovych. The difference is that Kiev could back out of its new relationship with the US/EU and return to the old status quo with Russia, while Putin would make it very difficult for Simferopol to back out of its new relationship with Russia.

There’s a story from the time of the Orange Revolution about a meeting between Kuchma, Yanukovych, a group of pro-Yanukovych supporters from Donetsk, and government security officials.[9] Over the course of the meeting it became obvious to everyone that Yanukovych was not going to be inaugurated as president, but Yanukovych was the last to accept this. Afterwards he publicly accused Kuchma of betrayal. Now Yanukovych is in the same position. He’s the only person in the room, metaphorically speaking, who hasn’t grasped that he’s never going to be president again. Even Putin, his protector, feels no sympathy for him and doesn’t see a political future for him.[10] Yanukovych’s role at this point is legitimizing the occupation of Crimea and a possible invasion of eastern Ukraine[11] while being largely ignored by his Russian hosts,[12] and once again complaining about being betrayed. To the Victor belong the spiels.

Policy Position

Greater Russian influence/greater Western influence

1. Putin
2. Yanukovych
3. Simferopol
4. Crimea’s population
6. Ukraine’s population
6. Kiev
7. US/EU

Putin wants Ukraine to be part of his Customs Union, and he doesn’t want NATO anywhere near his Crimean military bases. Yanukovych’s only hope for recovering the presidency, however delusional that hope is, is for Putin to force Ukraine to take him back. The Simferopol government was created to ensure Russian influence. A poll in February showed 41% of Crimeans favoring a union between Ukraine and Russia.[13] That was based on a small sample, but probably a larger percentage would favor the less extreme position of closer Russian ties, or the presence of a “protective” Russian force with Crimea’s status left undefined. Ukraine’s population is divided between patriotic Ukrainians who want closer Russian ties, and patriotic Ukrainians who want closer Western ties. Kiev has indicated that it wants to pursue EU membership. The US/EU wants everyone to have closer ties to the US/EU.

Importance of the outcome to the players

1. Crimea’s population
2. Putin
3. Simferopol
4. Kiev
5. Ukraine’s population
6. US/EU
7. Yanukovych

I think its obvious that the question of Crimea’s ties to Russia and the West matters more to Crimeans than to anyone else. As the person who created the crisis, Putin has as much at stake as any other single individual. In fact, you could make the argument that he should be in the top spot. (But I think the outcome’s effect on many Crimeans outweighs its effect on a single Putin.) You can view Simferopol as a government created in response to voter demand for closer Russian ties, or as a government created to provide political cover for Russia’s takeover of the Crimea, but either way Simferopol has a lot at stake in close ties to Russia. Kiev’s ability to negotiate with Putin and their success or failure in maintaining Ukraine’s borders will have a big effect on how they are viewed by the Ukrainian population. The Ukrainian population in turn will be affected the direction Kiev goes in order to resolve the crisis. Everyone in the first to fifth slot would be willing to fight over the crisis if they had to. The US/EU would not be willing. I think Yanukovych would be happy to see a war that restored him to power, but I don’t think he cares as much about who exerts influence in Ukraine as he does about the lost cause of Yanukovychian ascendancy.


1. Putin
2. Simferopol
3. Crimea’s population
4. Kiev
5. Ukraine’s population
6. US/EU
7. Yanukovych

It doesn’t seem to be Putin’s style to use phrases like “red line”, but he’s been strongly signaling his unhappiness with US/EU actions in Ukraine, and the signals have gotten stronger in the days since the invasion of Crimea. From Putin’s point of view, this is the last in a long series of interference in other governments, broken promises, and violations of international law by the West. George H. W. Bush promised Russian that we wouldn’t expand NATO into the former Soviet area, and Clinton ignored that promise and NATO expanded to Russia’s borders. Prior to 2003, Russia had an ally in Georgia. The Rose Revolution put paid to that, mostly due to the collapse of support for Shevardnadze, but partly due to organizing by NGOs that received some of their funding from the west.[14] The Orange Revolution the next year in the Ukraine deprived Putin’s favored candidate of the presidency, again with some support from the West.[15] Prior to 2011, Russia had an ally in Libya. It abstained from vetoing a UN Security Council resolution establishing a no-fly zone in Libya because it was promised that NATO wouldn’t go beyond its mandate.[16] There was mission creep and NATO ended up doing more than enforcing a no-fly zone. The end result is that Russia no longer has an ally in Libya. Since Putin became president in Russia, the West has redrawn Serbia’s borders to create the independent country of Kosovo.[17] Serbia had been a Russian ally, although it is now headed toward membership in the EU.

In this case, Russia has the military resources to prevent growing US/NATO influence in the Crimea where Russia has crucial military bases. It also supplies desperately needed gas and trade for the rest of Ukraine. He’s going to do whatever is necessary to prevent further threat to Russia’s interests, and he doesn’t trust us. Of all the players, he’s the least flexible. He doesn’t need an independent Crimea or a more autonomous one, but he does need one that is free of US/NATO influence.

The Simferopol government was created to create political cover for Russia’s military occupation of Crimea. More long term, it was created to maintain Russia’s political influence in Crimea and prevent an increase of Western influence. Crimea’s population includes many people who are resolved to strengthen ties with Russia, although this resolve probably isn’t as strong overall as the Simferopol government’s resolve. Kiev is determined to reestablish control over Crimea, but it has a lot of other problems to deal with and limited resources. Ukraine’s population mostly resents the Russian invasion, but they’re willing to allow a substantial amount of Russian influence. The US and EU are limited to providing financial support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia. As I mentioned above, its going to be hard for the US and EU to unite behind sanctions. Financial support will be more sustainable and have more effect, but that means that US/EU has to accept whatever Kiev can negotiate. Yanukovych will take whatever he can get.


Overall, it’s clear that the Crimean crisis is going to be resolved when Putin thinks it’s resolved. He has the most influence of any player, the outcome is more important to him than almost anyone else, the players on his side of the policy divide are mostly located in Crimea while the players on the other side of the divide are mostly elsewhere, he’s more determined than anyone else to get what he wants, and the most determined players are on his side.

In contrast, the only player less likely to have an effect on the outcome of the crisis than the US/EU is Yanukovych. While they’re at the middle of the pack in terms of influence, Ukraine/Crimea isn’t as important to the US/EU as is it is to most of the other players, and their resolve is weak. Russia has military bases in Crimea and operational control. Anything that the US/NATO could counter with is far away, and they’re not willing to use military force anyway.

Since Putin’s goal is more Russian influence in Ukraine and less Western influence, the sudden outpouring of assistance for Ukraine from the US/EU is probably viewed as more Western interference that destabilizes the country. Stability for Putin would be the old status quo with a Russian-oriented government and no Western interference. The more US/EU influence grows in Ukraine, the greater the chances of Putin splitting Crimea off from Ukraine and setting up a client state. This was the strategy he pursued in Abkhazia and South Ossetia when Georgia turned away from Russia and towards the EU and NATO, and he had less at stake in those two areas than he does in Crimea. Giving up influence in Ukraine and tightening control in Crimea is probably not his ideal solution, but it sets up a strong barrier to further Western encroachment, much more clearly marked and defended than the older more porous barrier at the border between the EU and Ukraine. Even with the Ukrainians and Tartars, Crimea as a separate political unit is going to be less susceptible to Western influence than Ukraine intact with the old provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

But splitting Crimea off from Ukraine doesn’t mean the end of Russian influence in Ukraine. Even with the resentment the move would create, Ukraine still needs Russian gas and Russian trade. Being at odds with Russia means that Ukraine will pay substantially more for gas, and a large part of eastern Ukraine’s economy depends on Russian trade. The oligarchs aren’t going to be happy at the loss of revenue, and eastern voters aren’t going to be happy about the loss of jobs. The economic harm that Western sanctions would do to Russia are minor compared to the economic harm that Russian sanctions would do to Ukraine. Sanctions themselves probably aren’t necessary. Just raising the price of gas and creating bureaucratic barriers to trade would cause a lot of pain. And language and cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine make it easy for Russia to create news reports that influence many Ukrainians’ thinking. Just as western Ukraine will always be open to Western influence, eastern Ukraine will always be open to Russian influence.

Looking at Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia ensured that it had strong bonds with the populations and effective control of the areas. People in both areas were offered Russian citizenship and many of them welcomed it. This gave Russia a clear indication of the support it would receive from people in the two areas. Russia subsidized the government of South Ossetia, controlled the security forces, and staffed the local governments with Russians or natives who had worked for the Russian government in similar positions.[18] Abkhazia exercises more autonomy, but Russia supplies a quarter of its budget, is funding a massive infrastructure buildup, and pays the pensions.[19]

In Transnistria, the economy is not self-sufficient and Russia subsidizes the government through a bizarre arrangement that saddles Moldova with Transnistria’s unpaid natural gas debts.[20] Russia also helps pay pensions and subsidizes other government services. It is probably subsidizing Transnistria’s army and KGB. Many of Transnistria’s people are Russian citizens and Russia fast-tracks citizenship applications.[21] Russia has never officially recognized Transnistria, but Russian troops keep Moldova from reasserting control.

Russia is issuing passports to members of the disbanded Berkut, the anti-riot police accused of shooting Maidan protesters.[21] It has made it easier for Crimeans to get Russian citizenship.[23] Russia has neutralized the Ukrainian military in Crimea, pinning it to its bases. Simferopol has announced that it is setting up its own law enforcement and security agencies.[24] It earlier reported that it was setting up its own defense ministry.[25] Russia has announced that the Crimean government is running a $1 billion deficit,[26] and indicated that it would be preparing a financial aid package to cover the deficit. And Russia is launching a new $3 billion bridge project to be built between Russia and Crimea.

At this point, its obvious that Crimean-created defense and security forces will be sponsored by Russia and effectively under its control. Creating new Russian citizens in Crimea strengthens Russia’s claim that it is protecting Russian citizens, and the rate at which people take up citizenship when it is offered gives Russia a gauge of how much support it has in Crimea. Putin has begun the process of making Crimea financially dependent on Russia, both for its operating budget and for infrastructure improvement. The new bridge not only will facilitate the movement of troops between Russian and Crimea, but it will also strengthen Crimea’s trade ties with Russia. So the pieces of an Abkhazian or Transnistrian style client state are already falling into place.

Putin could declare Crimea to be an independent state, as he’s done with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or he could refuse to recognize its independence while ensuring that Ukraine can’t reclaim it, as he’s done with Transnistria and Moldova. Putin may have recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia not because their independence gave him any political advantage, but in retaliation for the West recognizing the independence of Kosovo.[18] In this case recognizing the independence of Crimea is probably more trouble than it’s worth. Formally recognizing Crimea would bring additional Western condemnation, and Crimea will be more dependent on Russia if its status is undefined.

At this point Ukraine can’t go back to a government headed by Yanukovych. Putin acknowledged this when he admitted that Yanukovych has no political future.[10] But he sees the protests that lead up to Yanukovych’s removal as part of a Western effort to destabilize and divide the country. In his own words, “I have told them a thousand times ‘Why are you splitting the country?'”[10] Putin has apparently decided that the 21 February pact that would have left Yanukovych in the presidency while reducing his powers is Russia’s minimum acceptable agreement; any less and he’s better off seizing control of Crimea. This is so important to Russia that Foreign Minister Lavrov announced at one point that he and US Secretary of State John Kerry had agreed that the pact should be enforced, forcing Kerry to deny that he had agreed to that.[27]

My forecast is that the US/EU will continue to offer financial help and other support for Kiev. Putin will see this as a reckless pursuit of influence in Ukraine and will refuse to negotiate a deal that doesn’t meet his minimal demands. He will solidify his control of Crimea, making it economically and militarily dependent of Russia. He will not declare Crimea independent of Ukraine, making Crimea even more dependent on Russia and allowing Putin to claim that he isn’t altering Ukraine’s borders.


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