It's been two weeks since Vladimir Putin asked the upper chamber of the Russian parliament to authorize the use of force in Ukraine. Since then, he's non-invaded Crimea, which is today voting on whether it wants to join Russia, though we already know what the answer is going to be since there's no "no" option on the referendum ballot. Even without the referendum, though, Crimea is already de facto his, and has been for at least the last week.
Putin has also shown that he was serious about using force not just in Crimea, but in Ukraine proper. So far, he has kept it just to busing in hooligans into eastern Ukraine to act as grassroots pro-Russian protesters. But make no mistake, Putin is about to take eastern Ukraine, too.
To wit: On Saturday, the two-week anniversary of the authorization, the Russian foreign ministry was already laying the foundations for such a seizure, saying that it was being flooded with requests from citizens across eastern Ukraine, asking the Russians for protection against the western Ukrainian fascists.
But that’s just the pretext, not the reason. When Putin asked for and got his authorization, I wrote that, in predicting Russia’s actions these days, pessimism always wins. But, in this case, it isn’t just simple nastiness that’s going to drive this. For the first time in this manufactured crisis, Putin is going to be acting out of sheer pragmatism and necessity.
Take what else happened on Saturday. About 80 soldiers wearing uniforms without insignia took over a gas plant just across the Crimean border, in the Kherson region of Ukraine. Quoth the Times:
The move appeared to fit the pattern of deployment on Crimea. The Ukrainian Unian news agency cited local residents saying soldiers without identifying insignia had landed near the gas terminal in helicopters with Russia’s red-star tail art.
By early Sunday morning, Sergey Aksyonov, the new pro-Russian prime minister of Crimea, was appealing to Russia to send in its Black Sea Fleet to protect this gas plant.
The gas plant is in Strilkovo, which you can see on this map here as a narrow little sandbar across the water from Crimea proper.
Why is Aksyonov appealing to Moscow to secure this gas terminal? Well, ever since Russia non-invaded Crimea, the peninsula has been experiencing power outages and Kiev has been threatening to cut it off from its energy, gas, and water supplies.
Which, given the geography of the place, is quite easy to do. Here, just to refresh your memory, is Crimea.
Crimea qualifies as a peninsula on the slightest of technicalities, dangling from the Ukrainian mainland by an isthmus (Perekop, on the left side of the map) that, at its widest point, is just 4.3 miles wide. The rest looks like Greece, or lightly melted Swiss cheese.
What’s Crimea’s physical connection to Russia? Well, there isn’t one. There is just the bay just off of Kerch. No bridge there, nothing to connect it to Russia’s Krasnodar region just across the water (on the right side of the map).
(Now you can start to see Khrushchev’s logic a bit in transferring Crimea to Ukraine, no?)
So let’s say the inevitable happens today and Crimea votes to enfold itself in the Russian Federation’s embrace. But what happens next? And what happens if, as is quite likely, Kiev cuts newly-Russian Crimea off from gas, electricity, and water, which Crimea has none of on its own? How will Moscow, the new owner, supply its latest acquisition with the necessities?
Take a look at those two maps again.
If you’re Russia, do you really want to ferry the necessities across the bay, or build an expensive bridge, or lay down expensive new pipelines? Wouldn’t you rather use pre-existing land routes (and pipelines)? Wouldn’t it just be easier to take the land just north and east of Perekop and the Swiss cheese area, now that you’ve already put in the effort to massively destabilize it? And while you’re there, wouldn’t you want to just take the entire Ukrainian east, the parts with the coal and the pipe-making plants and the industry? You know, since you already have permission?