Predicting the Future in the Ukraine - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Predicting the Future in the Ukraine

Predicting the Future in the Ukraine

By John McLaughlin

Pro-Russia demonstrators rally at the local parliament building, with a monument of World War II in the background, in Crimea's capital Simferopol, Ukraine, Thursday, March 6, 2014. About 50 people rallied outside the local parliament Thursday morning waving Russian and Crimean flags. Lawmakers in Crimea called a March 16 referendum on whether to break away from Ukraine and join Russia instead, voting unanimously Thursday to declare their preference for doing so. A poster reads "Kiev, Stop Crime at Home."


Because Crimea stands at the corner of revolution, diplomacy and a hungry Russia. What happens next could yield a Putin with a greater appetite for neighborly intimidation.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Here is what we do know about the Ukraine: It has now been two weeks since Ukraine’s former President Yanukovich fled the country. It has been a week since armed Russian soldiers began occupying the Ukrainian province of Crimea. In the chaotic aftermath of these two events, Russia, Ukraine, the United States and Europe have been unable to find common ground on a way forward. 

In the United States, President Obama has authorized a series of economic sanctions on Russian individuals and entities involved in the events. The European Union has extended $15 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine. And the Crimean parliament — now in the hands of Russian allies — has authorized a public referendum to take place March 16. The session is meant to determine whether Crimea should become part of Russia or remain in Ukraine.

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director and acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who retired after a 30-year career in 2004. He is now a senior fellow and distinguished practitioner-in-residence at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Knowing this, there is little else we can be sure of; the situation is in unpredictable territory.

But between the messy game of recalling history and understanding the present comes the imprecise science that the intelligence community so relies on: trying to guess at where things could possibly go. 

From the good, to the bad and the ugly.

The Worst Case: A shooting war

Traditional armed conflict could break out between Ukrainians and Russians, deliberately or thanks to miscalculation. So far, the only shots fired have been the warning volleys set off by Russian soldiers over the heads of Ukrainian soldiers at Belbek airbase on March 4. But that could be just the beginning: With tempers flaring and hair-trigger emotions, anyone from a private to a commander could lose control and start a shooting war, either in Crimea or in adjacent waters, where Ukrainian and Russian vessels have been jockeying. 

Soldiers dressed in green camouflage uniforms guarding front of gate with barbed wire during the day

Russian special forces block bases in Crimea

Source Corbis

In fact, Russia very well could provoke such a scenario if it were to Moscow’s advantage. Russian intelligence almost certainly has agents throughout Ukraine who could stir trouble and urge action in situations where cooler heads have so far prevailed. Of course, more significant violence would give Putin a clean pretext for moving in with more troops, probably broadening deployment beyond Crimea to Russian- majority eastern Ukraine. He’d have myriad excuses to choose from — whether the simple desire to “restore order” or his need to “protect ethnic Russians.”  

As most can guess, such a standoff wouldn’t be easily reversed. NATO lacks the stomach for a military intervention. Using the channels of global diplomacy, we might be able to marshal a consensus against any recognition of eastern Ukraine as an independent country. Beyond that, the most we might see would be some amalgam of sanctions on Russia and Russian leaders.

But while such sanctions might wound Putin, they would not change the situation on the ground for any of the parties.   

The Best Case: A series of compromises

Diplomacy could bring about a series of compromises involving Ukraine, the United States, Russia and the European Union. But compromise may be more like, as Henry Kissinger recently said, “balanced dissatisfaction.” 

For this case to turn out well, all sides would have to place the welfare of the Ukrainian people front and center. Russia would have to recognize the Ukrainian people’s right to decide their own fate independently; the West would have to recognize that Russia has real interests in Ukraine, by virtue of proximity and historic ties. 

What else? The government in Kiev would have to guarantee that it would protect the rights of all groups within Ukraine. And Crimea would probably have to get something close to complete autonomy in return for agreeing to remain in Ukraine.

Russia — at a minimum — would need assurances of unimpeded and perpetual access to its Black Sea naval bases on the south coast of Crimea. 

And to lock this all in, Russia, the European Union and the United States would have to collaborate on an economic rescue package of loans and grants for Ukraine, which is approaching bankruptcy.

Protestor holding sign that

A woman protests war at Kiev’s Independence Square, in Ukraine, Thursday, March 6, 2014.

Source Efrem Lukatsky/AP/Corbis

Diplomacy sometimes works miracles (think of the Cuban missile crisis), but this would require a degree of statesmanship, political courage, compromise and imagination well beyond what any of the parties has shown so far. 

For any of this to be real, we need a measure of trust on both sides, which is unlikely. Putin would not trust the West to deliver any promises, and most European and American leaders must be thinking, “How can we trust a guy who denies his troops are in Ukraine when the evidence of their presence is right there on global TV every day?”

So don’t hold your breath.

The Middle Case: Russia backs off

Russia could temper its broad condemnations of the Kiev government and cease to threaten Ukraine as a whole. But this does not reverse its seizure of Crimea and it soon annexes the peninsula.

A version of this does, in fact, appear to be the direction we are headed. It begins with that March 16 public referendum set by the Crimean parliament. Recall that with a 60 percent ethnic Russian population and Russian troops in control of Crimea, it’s difficult to imagine a result from that referendum yielding anything other than a vote to join Russia.

So if diplomats cannot find a way to cancel that referendum, Russia will be well on its way to replicating what it did during the brief conflict with Georgia in 2008, when it settled into the provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and never left — essentially seizing a chunk of Georgia by force.

Protestors filling the picture with 1 above everyone with right fist up shouting

People waving Russian flags cheer following the vote for Crimea to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Source Sean Gallup/Getty

A Crimean cannibalization would not be a complete win for Putin, but it would mightily signal neighboring states of the former Soviet Union that Moscow can peel off pieces of territory and get away with it. This creeping knowledge might keep those states under Putin’s panoptical watch — and away from alliances with the West.

But even if Russia annexes Crimea, there remains the matter of a sizable minority who do not want Russian annexation. And what begins as a minority can easily transform into small-scale insurgency against Russian rule.

Yet even with the knowledge that this latter scenario is the most likely, we are in one of those periods when our vision is imperfect — so surprises remain possible. The future may lie in a hybrid possibility of these scenarios — whether a Russian takeover of Crimea that quickly paves the way for a broader incursion or, much less likely, a quiet Western acquiescence to a Crimean takeover in return for Russian participation in a Ukraine aid package. So as we seek out more precise lines of sight to the east, we would do well to keep our eyes trained on March 16.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories