Before Russia annexed Crimea, I wondered out loud how long it would take Moscow to digest its new-old territory. So far, the answer looks to be “not very long at all.” But Robert Beckhusen wonders if eastern Ukraine might prove rougher stuff:
There’s no doubt the Russian military has the means to invade mainland Ukraine. But whether it can hold conquered territory is another question—especially if Kiev puts up a fight.
That’s the conclusion of the Swedish Defense Research Agency, Stockholm’s government-funded military think tank.
The agency—known as FOI—doesn’t doubt that Russia can invade. But it does question whether Moscow has the ability to secure territory in mainland Ukraine, given the potential size of the area Russia would need to secure—and absent the natural defensive barriers of Crimea, which Moscow annexed in March.
Unlike Crimea, eastern Ukraine would be hard for an occupying force to defend. Russian troops could find it difficult to prevent insurgents from infiltrating their lines.
Crimea is nearly three-quarters ethnic Russian, but the bits of Ukraine Moscow now seems to be angling for are only about a third- to half-Russian. And that’s the easy part.
It’s easy to separate Crimea from the rest of Ukraine, but it already mostly is separated — connected to the mainland only by a narrow isthmus. Ukraine proper? Not so easy. The reason that part of the world is such an ethnic mishmash of ever-changing borders is there just aren’t many good places to draw any borders, and even if you did, it’s all-too-easy for people to move across them. What little ethnic homogeneity enjoyed by Central and Eastern Europe was “thanks” to Stalin’s brutality. He drew the borders he wanted, then moved the populations around to match. But Stalin never bothered to do that internally in the Soviet Union. Quite the opposite — Stalin re-settled ethnic Russians into Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic Republics in an effort to Russify them. That’s one reason there’s so much border friction between the old member states of the USSR.
So now Putin looks to re-take Ukraine’s Russian areas Russified by Stalin. But that struggle cuts both ways, for the reasons (and methods) given by Beckhusen.
Then again, Putin made his name putting down the Chechens, in a campaign even more brutal than it was effective.
We might be looking at a generation(s)-long struggle to find borders Eastern Europe can live with.