GeoPolitical Forecasts

Forecasts of international political events

Category Archives: Russia

Will Russia invade Ukraine?


I’ve been delaying making a forecast because there’s so much information, and so few reliable guidelines for interpreting it. Putin has been deliberately sending mixed signals: on one hand, he says he won’t invade east Ukraine, on the other, he emphasizes his legal grounds for invasion and he’s massing troops on the border. He seems to be trying to signal his intentions without having to pay the price of signaling his intentions. For example, if he announces that he’s going to invade Ukraine, the ruble will fall, Russian stocks will drop, and he’ll get endless phone calls from Western political leaders. If he states that he’s not going to invade Ukraine, he doesn’t have to deal with all that until the invasion actually happens, but Western governments will be aware of the troop movements and his statements about the illegitimacy of the current Ukrainian government, Yanukovych’s request for an invasion, and his claims of concern about the safety of Ukrainians who are ethnically Russian.

Putin wants Ukraine returned to the Russian sphere of influence. He’s willing to use military force to accomplish it, but he would rather negotiate. Since Yanukovych was forced out of power, he’s been very clear that he wants Yanukovych restored, but the US and EU have essentially ignored his statements and made offers that don’t restore Yanukovych or bring Ukraine back under Russian sway some other way. If he announces that he’s willing to use military force to get what he wants, he would have to deal with economic and political turmoil while the negotiations proceeded. I believe his current course of action is an effort to get the negotiations without the turmoil. I don’t believe he will get the response he wants, which means that he will invade.

In 2007, Putin made a speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy[1] that could have been titled “Why I Fear and Distrust the West”. Nothing that has happened since has made him more trusting. In Ukraine, a Western-sponsored agreement that would have eased Yanukovych out of power was discarded within hours. Yanukovych fled and was stripped of the presidency in a way that clearly violated the Ukrainian consitution. From Russia’s point of view, it was a Western-backed coup.[2] Subsequent discussions between Russia and the West haven’t done anything to restore Russian trust.[3] Restoring Yanukovych would restore Russian influence in Ukraine without requiring Russia to rely on assurances from the West, and unlike other ways of doing this, Yanukovych has some claim to legitimacy.

On the Western side, there’s been no effort to address Russia’s concerns. None of the proposals that John Kerry has made that have been reported in the news media have done have made any concession to Putin’s objections to the current government in Ukraine. There have been no proposals for an alternative government that excluded Yanukovych but addressed Putin’s concerns. The current government wants to join NATO and prefers the European Union to Putin’s Eurasian Union. This is unacceptable to Russia.

For political reasons, I don’t believe Western negotiators can make proposals that address Putin’s concerns. While Yanukovych has some supporters in Ukraine, the opposition to him is sufficiently widespread and intense that I don’t think he could return to the presidency unless preceded by Russian tanks. The current government depends on Yanukovych’s opponents for support and can’t negotiate his return. The US and EU have very little choice but to support the current government in Ukraine. Domestic politics here in the US make it impossible for Obama to accept Yanukovych’s return and extremely difficult to make proposals that would be seen by Congress as rewarding Russian aggression. The EU and NATO represent a mix of countries with different domestic political situations, but in aggregate their hands are also somewhat tied in terms of the proposals they can make or support.

Being naive in military matters, I thought at one point that Putin’s biggest concern was the naval bases in Crimea and that he would be satisfied with control of Crimea. But military analysts say that the naval bases aren’t all that important.[4] So Putin is seemingly willing to use military force in Ukraine for political reasons, without being driven by concerns about military strategy.

Currently, Moscow is claiming that Kiev is unable to maintain civil order in Ukraine and talking about it’s “duty” to protect Russian citizens in neighboring countries. The West is not doing anything to meet Russia’s concerns about the government in Kiev. Putin doesn’t trust the West, blames it for the current crisis, and wants Ukraine back in its sphere of influence. And Russia is willing to use its military forces. So I think the odds are better than 50/50 that there will be Russian forces in eastern Ukraine in the next couple of weeks.


After writing the first draft of this, I checked for recent news of Ukraine, and discovered that The Daily Beast is reporting that Russia has special ops forces in Ukraine.[5]

4. /03/13/39bcc6a2-a9df-11e3-b61e-8051b8b52d06_story.html?tid=hpModule_949fa2b e-8691-11e2-9d71-f0feafdd1394

Putin and Western double standards

This is not an analysis of Russian foreign policy, or an attempt to argue for or against any actions that Putin has taken. It’s fairly clear that Putin doesn’t trust the US/EU/NATO, and this is a list of specific facts and interpretations of those facts that would lead him to distrust the West and accuse it of applying double standards. I’m not evaluating the truth of his claims, only trying to understand his viewpoint. If I can’t understand his viewpoint, I can’t make predictions about his actions. Understanding his viewpoint necessarily means being able to express it in a way that he would agree with. Obviously, this is my attempt to understand and express his viewpoint, not his expression of his viewpoint. I’m pretty sure that I don’t completely understand his viewpoint and am not likely to express it entirely correctly. If you see where I’ve made an error, or if I’ve left something out, feel free to let me know.

On 4 March, Putin named three examples of what he considers Western double standards: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya[1]. I’ll start with those.

1. Afghanistan

The US-led military action in Afghanistan wasn’t authorized by the UN Security Council.[2] The UN Charter requires the US and other signatories to settle differences peacefully, except when they are defending themselves. A bombing campaign that culminates in the overthrow of a government is not part of the usual definition of self-defense. Under the US constitution, a treaty becomes the law of the land when the US ratifies it. A more limited definition of self-defense that excludes bombing and regime overthrow implies that the US broke both US and international law.

2. Iraq

I think Putin would agree with Kofi Annan’s summary of the legality of the Iraq invasion. Quoting Wikipedia, ‘Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, said of the invasion, “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN Charter. From our point of view, from the Charter point of view, it was illegal.”‘[3]

Russia supplied arms to Saddam Hussein and probably helped him get rid of his WMD after the First Iraq War.[4] If Iraq was not an ally, it was certainly an important relationship.

3. Libya

The UN resolution authorizing the enforcement of a no-fly zone over Libya also authorized protection of civilians by any means except a “foreign occupation force”. The military coalition acting in Libya eventually put special operations troops in the country.[5]

In this case, I can quote Putin: “When the entire so-called civilized community falls upon a small country with all its might, destroys infrastructure created over generations — I don’t know, is that good or not?”[6] And on the killing of Gaddafi: “Drones, including American ones, delivered a strike on his motorcade. Then commandos, who were not supposed to be there, brought in so-called opposition and militants. And killed him without trial.”[7] (There are a number of other quotes along the same line from Putin in the articles cited.)

Libya was an important ally for Russia, possibly the most important of its allies in North Africa and the Middle East.[8]

4. NATO expansion

When West Germany was planning to reunite with East Germany, Gorbachev told US Secretary of State James Baker that “any extension of the zone of NATO would be unacceptable.”[9] The next day, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told Gorbachev ‘”naturally NATO could not expand its territory” into East Germany.’ The West German FM told the Soviet FM “for us, it stands firm: NATO will not expand itself to the East.” Gorbachev made no deal with Baker and the West Germans could only speak for themselves. Nevertheless, Gorbachev understandably thought that they had an agreement not to allow NATO expansion. He later complained that he had been trapped.

From Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy:

I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: “the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee”. Where are these guarantees?[10]

From a 2010 interview Putin gave Kammersant Daily (via RIA Novosti):

At time of the withdrawal from East Europe, the NATO secretary general promised the USSR it could be confident that NATO would not expand over its current boundaries.

And where is it? I asked them [NATO officials] about this. They have nothing to say. They deceived us in the rudest way.[11]

5. Kosovo

In 2008, Kosovo declared itself independent of Serbia. Serbia’s Constitutional Court ruled the declaration illegal and its National Assembly voted it null and void.[12] The Russian government called on the UN and NATO to take steps to prevent Kosovo independence, “including the annulling of the decisions of Pristina’s self-governing organs and the taking of tough administrative measures against them.”[13] Putin said that “Europe has double standards on territory issues and small states do not feel safe in the world arena.”[14] Serbia was a Russian ally and remains close. Whether or not Kosovo’s independence violates international law is a matter of controversy.

6. Georgia

Eduard Shevardnadze, who had been the Soviet Union’s Foreign Minister, was Georgia’s president until 2003. He gradually lost support and his political party split up.[15] After an election that many viewed as fraudulent, mass demonstrations forced Shevardnadze to resign. NGOs partially funded by foreign sources were important in organizing the demonstrations. When Saakashvili was voted in as president, Georgia turned away from Russia and became a Western ally, seeking NATO membership.

7. Ukraine

Ukraine in 2004 experienced an Orange Revolution similar to Georgia’s Rose Revolution. Election fraud, followed by demonstrations partially organized by groups trained and funded in part by Westerners, led to a new government oriented to the West, along with talk of joining NATO.[16]

8. Ukraine again (Maidan)

(In describing right wing groups and government actions, I’m limiting myself to the things I believe Russia objects to. I’m not giving a complete or accurate description of groups or government actions.)

One of the organizers of the Maidan is the Svoboda party. In the past, it’s leader has made anti-semitic statements, and has used derogatory terms for Russians. The party’s original name was “Social-National Party of Ukraine”, a reference to National Socialism. The party honors Stepan Bandera, who many Ukrainians view as a Nazi collaborator. The party has eliminated racist statements from its platform, but it still contains statements many would consider discriminatory against non-Ukrainians.[17]

Right Sector emerged as an important part of the later, more violent Maidan protests. During the protests its leaders encouraged the production of Molotov cocktails and bombs, and it claims to have an arsenal of weapons. It claims to reject the more racist beliefs of many Svoboda members, but it uses neo-Nazi imagery and rejects multiculturalism.[18]

Right Sector and Svoboda were among the nationalist groups that dominated the Maidan self-defense units. These were the units that provided security for the Kiev parliament after the police disappeared. Under the protection of these units, Ukraine’s parliament removed Yanukovych from the presidency without following the constitutionally mandated procedure for an impeachment, in a vote that lacked the constitutionally mandated super-majority needed to remove a president.[19] The parliament voted to repeal the law that allowed Russian to be declared an official language, although the acting president didn’t sign it and it didn’t become law. Five of Svoboda’s members are part of the current government in Kiev.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the toppling of Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych, in the capital Kiev an “anti-constitutional coup and a military seizure of power”.[20]

The Russian foreign minister said the interim government in Kiev was “not independent because it depends to a great extent on the radical nationalists who seized power by force of arms”.

Right Sector, the main radical group, was “calling the tune” in Kiev, he said, and using “terror and intimidation” as its methods.[21]


Quoting the Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy:

Along with this, what is happening in today’s world – and we just started to discuss this – is a tentative to introduce precisely this concept into international affairs, the concept of a unipolar world.

And with which results?

Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems. Moreover, they have caused new human tragedies and created new centres of tension. Judge for yourselves: wars as well as local and regional conflicts have not diminished. Mr Teltschik mentioned this very gently. And no less people perish in these conflicts – even more are dying than before. Significantly more, significantly more!

We are seeing a greater and greater disdain for the basic principles of international law. And independent legal norms are, as a matter of fact, coming increasingly closer to one state’s legal system. One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way. This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations.[10]

In the 2010 interview with Kommersant Daily, Putin said his speech was still relevant.[11]

Update: This was edited on 8/3/14 to add more quotes from Putin and replace my summary of his views with quotes from his Munich speech.


Various quick forecasts

I’m going to start with an easy one. Egyptian General Sisi has been promoted to Field Marshal, an empty title given to Egyptian generals who are about to retire. The Supreme Council of the military has given its permission for Sisi to run for president. The recent cabinet reshuffle seems to have left him with fewer job titles, making it easier for him to resign from the interim government. And sources close to Sisi say that he is just waiting for the election law to be finalized before announcing. So I’m forecasting he will officially announce his candidacy before 1 May.

Turkey will not open new chapters of the aquis (the procedure for joining the EU) before 1 May. Cyprus is blocking the two chapters than Turkey wants to open, due to conflict between Cyprus (the government) and Turkey over the partition of Cyprus (the island). Talks between Turkish and Greek Cypriots are underway and could resolve the differences with Turkey, but not before 1 May.

There will be no breakthrough in the TPP talks before 1 May. Domestic politics in the US and Japan will ensure that neither will give ground on Japan’s agricultural tariffs in the immediate future.

Iran will install no new centrifuges before the end of the current agreement with the P5+1. With the exception of a few extreme hardliners and the people associated with Ahmadinejad, most of the hardliners in Tehran support pursuing negotiations.

On the other hand, Iran will not let the IAEA inspect the Parchin military base during the term of the current agreement. In fact, I don’t expect the IEAE to get access in Parchin at all unless it’s negotiated at the political level, i.e. as part of the P5+1 negotiations. Iran considers this to be outside the scope of the IEAE’s charter and won’t negotiate it during the technical negotiations with the IAEA. They’ve given the IAEA access before, the IAEA found no evidence of nuclear weapons research or testing, and Iran considers this to be more of a political issue than a compliance issue. The widely held view that the head of the IAEA is biased towards the US doesn’t improve the odds of an inspection.

Iran will not test a ballistic missile with a range of 2,500 kilometers or greater in the next six months. Iran has missiles that can reach its primary military targets, but there’s a low chance that they would actually strike their targets. Iran’s primary focus right now is developing missiles with reasonable accuracy and the ability to evade missile defenses. It is close to developing 2,500 km missiles , but that’s not a top priority right now.

Yanukovych will eventually be tried before the International Criminal Court, as Ukraine’s parliament has requested. Ukraine’s constitution spells out an impeachment process that involves the Constitutional Court, with is packed with Yanukovych’s people. If the new government replaces the judges, the new judges will be perceived as biased against Yanukovych. The ICC is the best bet for an impartial trial, something any new government will need to compensate for the fact that Yanukovych’s removal from office was unconstitutional. Yanukovych is being accused of mass murder, which is something the ICC handles. The surprisingly orderly nature of the revolution in Kiev means that a lot of evidence has been preserved.

The loan agreement between Russia and Ukraine is dead. Russia won’t be buying any more Ukrainian government bonds. The loan agreement was always a means to pull Ukraine into Putin’s proposed customs union. The new government is determined to pursue closer ties with the EU. Russia still has more leverage over Ukraine than any other country, due to trade ties and gas supplies. Ukraine desperately needs the money, but Putin gains no leverage by making the loans and loses no leverage if he doesn’t make them.

I’m still expecting the Thai government to renew the State of Emergency, but I’m less sure of it. The Thai courts have placed restrictions on the powers that the government can exercise under an SoE, which makes it less useful for the government. The government’s primary goal is to carry out by-elections in order to elect enough parliament members to make a quorum and form a new government. Even with the current SoE, the government hasn’t been able to do that, and the Election Commission has delayed new elections, possible beyond the limit of a renewed SoE. Still, the situation certainly justifies a SoE, and I think the government will want whatever powers the courts will allow it to exercise, and will renew the SoE.

If the corruption case against the Thai prime minister causes her to be removed from power, the UDD/red shirts will view it as a coup and will hit the streets in enough numbers to raise the level of crisis considerably, which would increase the odds of a renewed SoE.