Im not usually one to agree with William Hague, but when he describes whats going on in Crimea as Europes biggest crisis for a century he aint half wrong. Of course, part of the problem here is that Putin is surrounded by a circle of yes men who wont dare criticize him (lest they get whipped by Cossacks, or invited out for sushi).
For example, one of the unintended consequences of his actions might well be that Putin has drastically altered the strategic balance within Europe…to the detriment of Russia! Indeed short of getting out a shot gun and blowing his and every general in the armys toes off, one can scarcely thing of a more effective way of crimpling his own military, long term.
As I mentioned in a prior post, his actions raise the risk that Ukraine will now join NATO, along with other Western Allies in the region, such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. This would drastically alter the balance of forces within Europe. NATO air power would now be within range of most of central Russia, even Moscow itself. One scenario I doubt the Russians have ever war gamed is having to maintain air superiority over their own capital.
While Russia has a large airforce, the bulk of this is made up of obsolete cold war era jets (MIG 25s & 31s, SU-27s, etc.).These are no match for the latest in Western 4.5th generation and 5th generation fighters. Any time such aircraft have encountered modern Western Jets, theyve generally been hacked from the sky. While Russia has a small force of its own 4.5 gen aircraft, they have less than a hundred of them…versus a combined NATO armada of around a thousand 4.5th or 5th gen aircraft and many thousands more 4th gen fighters in support!
Thus you dont have to be a military genius to figure out that in the event of a shooting war, NATO would quickly gain air superiority over most of central Russia. Russias remaining air, naval and ground forces would then be forced to flee out of range of NATO air strikes (which would mean leaving most of Russias major cities undefended), or else face destruction and ultimately defeat.
Now the Russians will probably point to their nuclear forces to save them from this. This is also what worries me, as Putins actions in Crimea threaten to undermine the effectiveness of the Russia’s nuclear deterrent, and that in of itself raises the risks of a future nuclear war as a result.
Russia has, since the 1980s, largely adopted a second strike policy (as have the Indians, Pakistanis and until recently the Chinese). This was largely due to the fact that Russian missiles lack the accuracy of Western missiles and NATOs sophisticated early warning system means its highly unlikely the Russians could launch a credible first strike without suffering annihilation in the insuring counterstrike.
However a crucial requirement for a second strike policy is the assurance that your missiles will still be there to be fired after the enemy has attacked. A Russia ringed by NATO, particularly when you consider there are gaps in the Russians own early warning systems, is at risk of NATO trying to knock out their arsenal, possibly using conventional forces (e.g. stealth aircraft or drones), before they can push the button in Moscow. Now while I doubt the Obamas of this world would give such an order, Im not so sure about the Sarah Palins or the Nigel Farages. And thats exactly the sort of scenario which could start WW3!
This is why the Cuban missile crisis was such an issue, as the Americans argued the Russians putting missiles that close to their shore undermined their second strike capability (of course the Russians pointed out they were ones to talk what with American missiles in Turkey!). Similarly G. W. Bushs ABM plan was so contentious because it was feared it would undermine the Russians ability to launch a 2nd a strike. This crisis was only defused when it became obvious that the ABM system in question didnt actually work properly!
However, the US and Israel have been busy developing their ABM systems. And if they could mount them sufficient close to their Russian launch sites, its possible they could counter much of Russias nuclear deterrent. Indeed Russias own 2010 assessment of threats to its own deterrent lists just the sort of scenarios I paint above.
Of course there are solutions for the Russians. Developing and building more advanced fighter aircraft. Developing more accurate long range missiles which can counter ABM systems. However thats going to cost money, lots of it. Just look at the amounts the West spent on mega-projects such as the F-22 (total cost to date: $62 billion!) or the Eurofighter. Consider that the UK is planning to spend £20 billion just upgrading the existing Trident system (which I still say is a waste of money).
Now while there were many reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union, ranging from mismanagement of its agricultural policy, failed economic policies and awful politics (as its been said, the Soviet union collapsed like a house of cards because it was a house of cards), as well as the effect of a sudden drop in oil prices in the late 80s. But trying to compete with the West on military spending was another contributory factor, one I doubt Putins in a mood to repeat.
Its about the Economy: Stupid
And the cautionary tale of the Soviets collapse was probably why the Russian stock market has tanked recently. By sending tanks into Ukraine Putin has sent a signal to the markets that Russia is not a safe place to do business. And as a result, the markets have panicked and begun to pull out.
While Putin thinks hes safe from Western sanctions due to the fact he supplies Europe with natural gas, he perhaps forgets that the money to pay for that gas flows through New York, Frankfurt and London. And while the EU might not impose sanctions it might not have too if the markets vote with their feet and start pulling money out of the country.
And as far as that Gas is concerned, Putin turning off the gas isnt a decision he can take lightly. Obviously if he doesnt supply the gas, Europe aint going to pay for it, and hes still going to have to pay the workers. All the pipelines run West to Europe, so its not as if he can just start selling it to the Chinese. And of course wed be assuming the Chinese are as dumb as us Europeans, as to allow themselves to become dependent on Russia for their energy (why do you think Chinas talking about building hundreds of GWs worth of wind and solar power? Too save the whales? Or because they dont want to be dependent on foreign energy imports?).
If that doesnt get the message across, lets look at another example. Russias space industry. The Russians, along with the Ukrainians are supplying rocket parts and engines to a number of Western companies, such as Sea-launch, Boeing (Atlas V first stage) and OSS. They also now launch Soyuz rockets from French Guiana. Im doubtful how long these relationships will last, given the situation in Ukraine. No doubt the directors of these firms I mentioned are having crisis meetings as we speak looking for alternative hardware suppliers who arent Russian or Ukrainian.
So while many Russian industrial workers or oil and gas workers might be moved by nationalistic fervour to support Putin, that novelty factor might start to wear off rather rapidly once their pay checks start bouncing. And once his general realise the mess hes gotten them into he wont be able to rely on their support anymore. And there is history here. Several of Putins allies ranging from Yanukovych and Miloević were ultimately brought down, not by NATO air strikes, but because their policies wrecked the economy and the people drove them from power.