This is my translation of an article by Saska Saarikoski that was posted on Helsingin Sanomat webpage on April 1st, 2014: Edes yksi ennusti Krimin kriisin oikein. As always, I will take this down if Saarikoski requests that; he didn’t reply to my email.
The 2008 article referred to is posted on Ulkopolitiikka website: Venäjä asetti rajat Ukrainan länsimielisyydelle
Crimean occupation was foreseen more than five years ago by a team of Ukrainian and Finnish researchers including the reasons leading to it. Now they predict what could happen to Putin.
Finns have had a sense of pride on the knowledge of their eastern neighbor Russia, but the crisis in Ukraine and the Crimean occupation seem to have surprised everyone.
But not everyone was caught off guard.
Editor Joonas Pörsti wrote an analysis in Finnish foreign policy journal Ulkopolitiikka in 2008. This analysis predicts what has transpired almost to a T.
“If Russia and Ukraine were to come to an open conflict over a disagreement concerning NATO membership or the naval base, the Crimea is a probable scene of the force play. Some Russian commentators, e.g. liberal Georgy Bovt who writes on Moscow Times, considers the likelihood of a conflict high even before the year 2017 when the lease of the Sevastopol base is up.”
With so many moving parts in the world it is rare that predictions are this accurate. Pörsti’s article in Finnish is now again available thought the Politiikka website.
The writer of the analysis Joonas Pörsti, 40, answers the phone being at home in flu and also anxiously waiting the birth of his first child.
Pörsti remembers the article well. He, however, refuses, politely, the title of an oracle in international security policy.
“The article was a result of collaboration. An important expert was an Ukrainian researcher Igor Torbakov, who works now in Sweden. You absolutely must speak also with him.”
Before I pursue that I have to ask: Was the article a real bull’s-eye?
“Well, we were very successful in pinning down the risk related to the naval base.”
Pörsti relates the three central factors of the 2008 analysis: Russian population in Crimea were critical of the Ukrainian rule, the uncertainty of the future of the naval base in Sevastopol, and Ukraine had been clearly on Georgia’s side in the Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008.
The situation in Ukraine began to improve as Russia saw it. Viktor Yanukovych who was supported by Russia became the new president and the lease on the naval base was extended.
When Yanukovych, in addition, rejected the association agreement already negotiated with the European Union, that all was a positive direction in relation to Russia.
Then things took a sharp turn for the worst for Russia: major protests in Kiev forced the president out and power was seized by a west-leaning government.
“When Russia lost the control of the situation in Ukraine, they decided to strike,” Pörsti states.
The western countries have closed their eyes on the ill-boding developments in Russia, says Pörsti, because they did not want to hamper trade relations.
“Wishful thinking seems to be the guiding force in the analysis of international relations all too often. One is not willing to see what is really happening. Instead, what one hopes to see, is seen.”
Pörsti suggests that Russia can well be content with the Crimea for now, as it was with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008. But that should not be taken for granted by anyone at this point.
Igor Torbagov, 55, answers the phone at the Uppsala University. He is a senior fellow in the Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies there. He was born in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine and studied in Moscow and Ukraine and therefore knows well both sides of the conflict.
He thinks that Putin is horrified and that drives him to aggression.
“Putin surely felt cold shivers down his spine when he saw Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine with a helicopter in the middle of the night. What looks like strength, is in fact weakness and lack of confidence. He is afraid of losing his standing.”
Torbakov says that internal affairs always dominate foreign ones with Putin. He desires to nix the democratic swelling in Ukraine from the bud in order to prevent it spreading into Russia.
“The tactics he employs with Ukraine are to humiliate the ones in power, stir up commotion and protests among the Russians there and keep the pressure on with his military. I do not believe that he aims for a full-blown military conflict, but in a situation like this there is always a risk in things to getting out of hand.”
Putin follows a common Russian approach, according to Torbakov, in that he tries to gain the upper hand simply by using fear. If successful, Putin can be pacified with promises that Ukraine will not join the NATO and that privileges Russian-speaking minority will be constitutionally secured.
The occupation of the Crimea has sparked up speculations about the new Russian expansionism. Torbakov says this all fits in the larger picture of the fracturing of the Soviet empire.
“One must only see the reactions in other countries neighboring Russia, for example in Kazakhstan. In practice the Crimean invasion evaporates all thoughts concerning a voluntary-based Eurasian treaty lead by Russia.”
If Torbakov was a Finn, he would feel safe enough.
“I understand the fearfulness experienced in Finland and also the eagerness towards strengthening defenses with NATO membership, but analytically speaking there is no actual threat towards Finland in the horizon. Russia is plenty occupied with other worries.”
The previous prediction was such a perfect shot that we must see if it could not happen again. What is happening in Russia in the next five years?
“As a historian I focus on the past and not the future. One possible scenario is that the Ukrainian crisis starts a chain reaction leading to a change of power in Russia.”
“Russian economy is frail and vulnerable. If economic sanctions were to seclude Russia and brand it as a rogue state, that could collapse the economy and cause a serious political crisis resulting in Putin being toppled. Isn’t there a Russian elections coming in 2018…”