Why Taking Ukraine in 2014 Would Have Been a Bad Idea?

There are some people that accuse Putin of abandoning a unique chance in 2014 to stop the “Banderovites” that took over Kiev…

I heard similar stuff from Russian nationalists recently at Sputnik & Pogrom podcast with Aleksandr Zhuchkovsky, a militia man in Donbass, and then I saw this Sovok post below. Unlike Russian nationalists, some out there even believe that Russia should have helped Yanukovych back to Bankova.

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“Today, many seek an answer to what happened in Ukraine in 2014, and was it possible to stop the banderovite nazis from coming to power?” AND ON THE MEME: “They could have stopped the banderovites in 2014, they were spooked by sanctions and forgot about honour before the historic motherland (USSR?). Even though, sanctions were inevitable, no matter what!”

Criticism of Putin’s handling of the Ukrainian crisis finds a home both on the right and on the left of Russia’s political spectrum, among opponents of Putin. One can definitely find flaws in the handling of the Donbass crisis. Russia’s current position is that the republics are “self-declared”, this is what the Russian media refer to them as, that they are part of Ukraine, and that they should be reintegrated into Ukraine in some form of a federative arrangement. The kremlins’ view recognition of the Donbass republics as a step in the extreme, perhaps after Ukraine attempts to take the republics over by force.

On the other side in Kiev, Donbass republics are viewed as a part of Ukraine, forcibly torn away by Russian aggression. According to Ukrainian constitution, Ukraine is a unitary state, and without a change to the constitution, federalism is impossible. The Ukrainian parliament eagerly changed the constitution recently to include aims to join NATO and the EU. However, I do not see the same enthusiasm about federalism. This disparity in views between Kiev and Moscow, the resultant lack of recognition for the Donbass republics, high levels of criminality, and poor handling of the republics by Russian curators as Anatoly Karlin notes, don’t add to Russia’s good image.

But was reinstating Yanukovych, or creating Novorossiya ever a good idea? I have recently read a compelling case against this that mentions reasons other than just the threat of sanctions. Sergey Belov on Alternativa imagines in five points what would happen if the Kremlin did not limit itself to Crimea:

First of his arguments is that Russia would be forced to support the odious persona of Viktor Yanukovych as the legitimate president. He says, other than the Regionnaires there aren’t any other pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. The latter I would disagree with but given that Regionnaires have now all become United Russia members in Crimea, this is probably what would have happened. The kremlins seem very comfortable with former Regionnaires but even they must realise that the relationship with them was counterproductive.

Belov’s second argument is that Russia would have to enter some serious military conflict. If not with the Ukrainian army, then with the Ukrainian nationalist battalions. He said the Ukrainian nationalists would likely resort to guerrilla tactics of terrorism and sabotage.  I am one of those that believes Russia intervened in some capacity to help the Donbass republics, which official Russia denies. But given kremlins’ efforts to freeze the conflict, Donbass conflict barely registers in Russian public opinion. Russian public would, according to Belov, not approve of casualties. The ideology of the post-soviet public is that of comfort and abundance, in the words of youtuber Denis Seleznev, and too many casualties would probably not sit well with the Russian public.

Thirdly, maintenance of the occupied territory would put a strain on the Russian budget, and the money would likely be stolen by the Regionnaires. Furthermore, it would be difficult to satisfy Ukrainians that had just been promised prosperity in the EU.

Fourth argument concerns gas exports. Under occupation of Ukraine, Gazprom would be in a precarious situation in which transit through Ukraine would remain in place. Pipelines could be easy targets for nationalist resistance. One can only remember how Ukrainian nationalists blew up electric lines going to Crimea. Northstream2 and the Turkstream are still not finished yet. Gas exports are a major source of revenue for the Russian budget, and something “Putin’s Western partners” will be reluctant to put sanctions on.

And finally the fifth argument is that any occupation regime in Ukraine is always forced to buy loyalty of the “titular nation”, and would have to support local language and culture. Basically, Russia would need to engage in feeding Ukrainian separatism much like the Soviet Union did to her own detriment. While some Russian nationalists may entertain the notion of invading Ukraine with the aim of instituting a Russification programme. The reality is that not even the Russian Empire, which denied the validity of Ukrainism altogether, was able to do anything about it.

As we can see, sanctions may have been inevitable, but that clearly was not a reason to invade Ukraine and reinstate Yanukovych. Novorossiya from Transnistria to Donbass was likely not feasible either. I doubt Russia is economically strong enough to absorb 20 million people. We can only wonder why the liberation of Donbass was not completed but I think the kremlins were more interested in freezing the conflict than having to take care of the entire Donbass. Always remember the words of Yarowrath, the ideology of the Russian elite is “less people more oxygen”, so tough luck.

29 thoughts on “Why Taking Ukraine in 2014 Would Have Been a Bad Idea?

  1. Pretty weak arguments, IMO.

    Sad reality – Russia did criminally little to economically seriously prepare for a standoff with the West (when all the signs were pointing to one after 2008 at the latest).

    I agree that absorbing Ukraine whole would have been beyond Russia’s capacity. But Novorossiya was perfectly doable, and I disagree there’d have been sabotage problems. Crimea’s pre-accession support for unity with Russia of 40% went up to 90% (or in other words, the Russophilia Quotient moved up by more than a standard deviation); by extension, Donbass support of 30% should have risen to around 80% post factum, while even relatively unenthusiastic areas like Dnepropetrovsk would have risen to 50/50. Now Dnepropetrovsk is almost as anti-Russian as Kiev, which in turn is almost as anti-Russian as Galicia.

    PS. Back in the 1990s, it was semi-conventional wisdom that Russia would eventually take Belarus and East Ukraine back. Now the latter at least is far less imaginable than in 2010.

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    1. Russia would need to have an elite which would see the reality of the West, and if they were far seeing, they would have seen it already in 2003, or perhaps earlier. Instead the Russian elite are Papua-New Guineans, who can easily be bought and scared off.

      In 2014 we did not have another Russia, without Chubais and Nikolay Choles. We had Russia of crooks and thieves, who are more concerned about their Western real estate than some semi-Ukrainian dregs in Ukraine’s east. Besides, they are more interested in keeping the Russian populace content than taking on more human deadweight, or giving dregs in Russia ideas. They are also more interested in continuing deals with the Ukrainian oligarchs.

      This kind of Russia was only interested in doing enough to save face, and continuing business as usual.

      Imagine a situation in which this kind of Russia takes over Dniepropetrovsk. They put in power some Regionnaires, they make the Ukrainian language official, so they will have to contend with svidomites. Who needs this?

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    2. So, you are saying that Russia would have been able to successfully withstand North Korea-level sanctions and at the same time successfully raise Novorossiya’s standard of living and economy to Russian levels had Russia taken active precautions to prepare for this after 2008?

      Also, using your calculations, Ukraine in its entirety (meaning “on average”) should have increased its support for a union with Russia from 12% to 40-50% in the event of a Russian takeover of all of Ukraine in 2014. Does that seem realistic to you? Granted, this percentage would have been much lower in central and western Ukraine and higher–sometimes much higher–in parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, but the average for Ukraine as a whole would have been 40-50% if you are assuming that the same 1.0-1.5 standard deviation increase in Russophile sentiment would have occurred following a Russian invasion and annexation of all of Ukraine. Of course, this percentage would have been even higher if Russia would have refrained from conquering vehemently anti-Russian Galicia and Volhynia.

      In addition, if one believes in your calculations, why stop at Novorossiya? After all, even Kiev–with its ~5% support in favor of a Russia-Ukraine union, would have seen a 1.0-1.5 standard deviation increase in Russophile sentiments after a Russian invasion and annexation. Thus, instead of 5% of Kievans supporting a union with Russia, this figure might have been in the range of 25-35%. Granted, this is less than a majority, but it’s still enough to have a large, loyal support base in this territory. France’s position in Algeria and Israel’s position in the West Bank were militarily solid even with only a minority of the population there actually supporting French/Israeli rule. It was politics that caused a lot of French people and Israelis to push for disengagement and withdrawal from Algeria/the West Bank (due to the fact that these territories represented a demographic threat to France/Israel). The population of central Ukraine would have been way too small to pose a demographic threat to Russia and thus Russia could have easily used the loyal 25-35% of the population there that would have been loyal to it after a Russian invasion and annexation to successfully rule over central Ukraine. (For the record, I am not actually endorsing this–rather, I am merely pointing out as to how a pro-Russian person could view this.)

      As for the conventional wisdom in the 1990s part, do you have a source for this, please? I know that Russians dreamed about regathering the ex-USSR lands (perhaps minus southern Central Asia and the Caucasus) ever since the collapse of the USSR, but I’m unsure that foreign observers took this idea particularly seriously in the 1990s–at least other than with Belarus, which already created a Union State with Russia back in the 1990s.

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  2. About regional economics:
    * Donetsk – richest region after Kiev (before the war), though with significant social problems; accounted for something like 25% of Ukraine’s exports
    * Kharkov – basically a second capital; second academic/research center after Kiev; strong machine building, including Ukraine’s premier tank production/repair yard
    * Zaporozhye – helicopter production
    * Odessa – Ukraine’s major port; could be developed into a major cultural node
    * Nikolaev – Ukraine’s shipbuilding center
    * Dnepropetrovsk – major industrial center and logistical hub
    So out of Novorossiya’s eight oblasts, some six of them are valuable and can be expected to be self-sustaining, while two of them aren’t (Kherson and Lugansk).
    Crimea is also in that latter category, though it could potentially move into the ranks of quality provinces with a lot of investment (which Russia is doing now); but stability would also help, including Ukraine not shutting down that canal. Which a land bridge could have accomplished.
    Comparable quality provinces in the rest of Ukraine: Kiev/Kiev oblast, Lvov, Poltava, … and I think that’s basically it.
    Taking Novorossiya would have crippled Ukraine, which significantly boosting Russia’s own capacities.

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    1. You forget the whole area would be blocked by international sanctions, and the economy would be utterly dependent on Russia for help. 20 million mouths to feed. Russia sucks economically to take on such a burden. It would probably lead to major crisis in RF proper.

      Russia doesn’t even have the balls to create a land bridge to Crimea, something I don’t understand. Why didn’t they do it? Maybe because they wanted to have influence over Akhmetov in Ukraine, and they let him have Mariupol. Either way Renat’s interests are clearly more dear than water for Crimean vineyards.

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      1. To be fair, Russia could try getting assistance from China in regards to this. However, would China be prepared to take on such a burden–and just how much will China demand from Russia in exchange for this?

        Novorossiya certainly has a lot of potential–as North Korea does–but would have required time and money for this potential to actually be fully realized. Demographically speaking, it would be easier for Russia to uplift a territory with 1/7ths of its total population than it would be for West Germany to uplift a territory with 1/3rd of its population. However, this would be compensated by the fact that Germany is much wealthier than Russia is and by the fact that Germany didn’t have to deal with severely crippling Western sanctions after it reunified.

        Putin wanted Novorossiya, but he also wanted to maintain a degree of plausible deniability (in an attempt to reduce the amount of sanctions that the West is going to put on Russia in response to this). However, given that most of the regions of Novorossiya were unwilling to rebel after the Maidan Revolution, direct Russian military intervention would have been necessary to conquer and annex all of Novorossiya to Russia. This, in turn, would have very likely resulted in North Korea-level Western sanctions on Russia. Would Russians have actually been willing to pay such a high price in exchange for reunification with Novorossiya?

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      2. Putin mentioned Novorossiya only once, while pointing out the heterogeneous character of the South-East of Ukraine. But the enthusiasm for Novorossiya was found only in Donbas, which was the most Russified region, after Crimea. That’s why we have LNR and DNR and nothing else now.

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    2. Come to think of it, did Russia even have a substantial food production in 2014 before counter sanctions were imposed?

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    3. You would also have to keep in mind the fact that Russia would need to raise the standard of living and economy of Novorossiya to Russian levels. Sure, Novorossiya has a lot of potential–just like North Korea has–but it would take time and money for this potential to be fully realized. The West isn’t going to be providing this money considering that it would extremely heavily sanction both Russia and Novorossiya in this scenario. Would China be willing to lend Russia enough money to uplift Novorossiya’s economy to Russian levels?

      Also, would the Russian people actually be willing to tolerate it if their country will experience North Korea-level sanctions from the West in response to a Russian conquest of all of Novorossiya? I mean, sure, Russians would love to have Novorossiya, but would they have perceived the price of this as actually being worth it?

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      1. Dnipropetrovsk had the most casualties of all Ukrainian regions. It begs a question why Russia should feed a bunch of pro-Ukrainians, who don’t indenting with her.

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    4. By that logic, though, why stop at Novorossiya? Why not also go for Kiev (both the city and the oblast) as well as Poltava? Granted, even after a Russian annexation, a majority of the people in Kiev and Poltava are going to be opposed to Russian rule. However, even a pro-Russian minority of 25-35% would be enough for Russia to successfully run and rule these territories–just ask France in regards to Algeria and Israel in regards to the West Bank.

      How many people are there in central Ukraine? 10 million? If so, then several million anti-Russian Ukrainians aren’t going to be anywhere near enough to pose a significant demographic threat to Russia.

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      1. I am not certain how an occupation of this size could be undertaken without many moths of preparation, and whether it would have been peaceful for Russia.

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  3. In regards to your Dnipropetrovsk comment (March 25, 2019 at 11:20 p.m.), I’m presuming that the logic would be that the anti-Russian elements in areas such as Dnipropetrovsk should be persuaded to emigrate in a scenario where Russia would have conquered and annexed these territories. There is some historical precedence for this–for instance, I think that a significant number of Germans left Poland after parts of Germany ended up becoming a part of Poland after the end of World War I.

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    1. I don’t think Russia would be able to defend the area without occupying the rest of Ukraine. The latter would be a colossal undertaking, which Putin clearly could not afford.

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      1. Russia does have significant military superiority over Ukraine, though. Of course, I don’t know how well Russia would cope with guerilla-style hit-and-run attacks.

        Theoretically, Russia could have went for the Dneiper border in both the north and the south. That way, its Navy could have securely patrolled its new borders with Ukraine. However, that would have left Odessa inside of Ukraine. Meanwhile, going west of the Dneiper in order to capture and annex all of Novorossiya might have made Russian forces vulnerable to Ukrainian guerilla/hit-and-run attacks.

        As for Putin, I get why he made the calculation that he did. Basically, he doesn’t appear to have wanted a complete rupture in relations with the West. Thus, he wanted to make any Novorossiyan rebellion seem like an authentic one as opposed to a Russian-created artificial one. Of course, the problem with such an approach for pro-Russians is that only Crimea and the Donbass were actually willing to rebel against Kiev.

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  4. “I am not certain how an occupation of this size could be undertaken without many moths of preparation, and whether it would have been peaceful for Russia.”

    Agreed that such a move would have required a lot of time to prepare beforehand. (And for the rest, I am not actually endorsing such a move.)

    As for it being peaceful to Russia, I doubt that it would have been completely peaceful. Rather, I suspect that Ukrainians (particularly young ones) are first going to engage in large-scale protests against the Russian occupiers and then some of them could have resorted to violence–particularly if the situation would have gotten out of control. Still, I don’t think that it would have been a large-scale insurgency. After all, the Crimean Tatars have, by and large, been peaceful after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Even the Crimean Tatars who are opposed to this annexation haven’t responded with violence. Of course, things could be a bit different if a lot of Galicians would have went to central Ukraine to fight the Russian occupation. The same would have likewise been true of Novorossiya had a lot of Galicians went there to fight after a Russian occupation of Novorossiya.

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  5. “Novorossiya’s economic viability is doubtful without the rest of Ukraine.”

    Perhaps initially, but it could presumably develop trade links with Russia over time. I mean, Ukraine was able to survive after it seceded from the Soviet Union, wasn’t it? Why wouldn’t the same have been true of a Novorossiyan secession from Ukraine?

    “Putin mentioned Novorossiya only once, while pointing out the heterogeneous character of the South-East of Ukraine. But the enthusiasm for Novorossiya was found only in Donbas, which was the most Russified region, after Crimea. That’s why we have LNR and DNR and nothing else now.”

    Wasn’t the speech in which Putin mentioned Novorossiya a pretty important speech, though?

    Also, Yes, as I previously said here, only in Crimea and the Donbass were the people actually willing to rebel and fight for the Russian cause. For the Russian cause and the Novorossiya project to expand elsewhere, direct Russian military intervention would have been necessary.

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    1. Russian occupation would likely cause a major economic disruption and subsequent disappointment with the Russian presence. Ukraine is an internationally recognised state, which Novorossiya would not have been. It would have been one large Transnistria, completely dependent on Russia.

      Putin’s speech was certainly heard many, but it was not always considered a call to political mobilisation. I would say in some places, there was quite a resistance to any Novorossiya.

      Direct Russian intervention would require the neutralisation of pro-Ukrainian elements, and the ability of Ukraine to strike back. I don’t believe Ukraine was completely toothless back in 2014. While Russia would have certainly won this conflict, it begs a question of “at what cost?” And would the Russian public actually accept such a cost?

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      1. For the record, I was thinking of a direct Russian annexation of Novorossiya here. Creating an independent Novorossiyan state would probably not have been sustainable since it would have been the worst of both worlds–specifically being in legal limbo.

        You are correct, though, that even with a direct Russian annexation of Novorossiya, there is likely to be a major economic disruption in Novorossiya as Novorossiya will struggle to create new economic ties with Russia to compensate for the loss of its economic ties with western Ukraine and the rest of Europe. Basically, Novorossiya might have experienced an economic crisis comparable to what some ex-USSR states experienced in the 1990s. Maybe I’m exaggerating here, but I suspect that it would not have been pretty. Also, I don’t know just how much spare money Russia had in 2014. It might take a lot of money and time to uplift Novorossiya’s economy, GDP per capita, and standard of living to Russian levels. Also, this would have to be done while both Russia and Novorossiya would have suffered from crippling Western sanctions–and if Russia would have failed to significantly improve the quality of life in Novorossiya, there are likely to be strong calls there for a reunion with Ukraine.

        I do agree with you that the Novorossiya idea didn’t get a lot of support in various oblasts even in the traditionally pro-Russian areas of Ukraine. Maybe there would have been more support for annexation by Russia after the fact as Anatoly Karlin argues, but this would have still required Russia to occupy all of Novorossiya without much local help and without much of a justification. At least in the Donbass, Russia could claim to be supporting a native insurgency against Kiev’s rule–but such an insurgency was non-existent in the other parts of Novorossiya. This would matter because such a Russian move is very likely going to make the West dislike and sanction Russia even more than for the Crimean annexation and Donbass War.

        I agree that direct Russian intervention would have required the neutralization of pro-Ukrainian elements as well as the creation of a solid frontier line (wall, perhaps?) to prevent Ukrainians from western Ukraine from trying to cause trouble in Novorossiya. AFAIK, Ukraine’s military was in shambles in 2014, but the Ukrainian people were nevertheless able to rise up to the challenge and to defend their country. Even with a weak Ukrainian military, you’re probably going to have a lot of Ukrainian volunteers who are going to try to liberate Novorossiya or at least to make life for Russian forces there much more unpleasant. I do agree with you that it’s very possible that the Russian people would have been unwilling to actually pay the necessary cost for a Russian victory in Novorossiya, though.

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  6. By the way, it’s worth noting that support for the Party of Regions/Opposition Bloc didn’t fall evenly in different parts of Novorossiya between 2010 and 2014. Some oblasts in Novorossiya experienced a larger drop in support for the PoR/OB in 2014 in comparison to some other regions of Novorossiya. Thus, it’s far from clear that after a Russian annexation of all of Novorossiya, the increase in support for Russian rule would have been evenly distributed throughout all of Novorossiya.

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      1. I am tempted to agree with this. Russia’s best bet would have been to significantly improve the quality of life for Novorossiyans–but with it having to face extremely crippling sanctions from the West, Russia might have had a very difficult time successfully pulling this off.

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      2. Also, the sanctions would include a blockade of the territory, and the vast space would in turn become as prosperous as Transnistria. Russia does not have a plan to economically integrate this territory. To be honest, they find it difficult to integrate the strip of Donbass that is outside Ukrainian control.

        Also, I believe, to make Novorossiya viable. Russia would need to pacify the rest of Ukraine, or at least Central Ukraine. This is an extreme undertaking. Not impossible but hardly justifiable before the Russian public.

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