Public statements by Russia’s defense minister, Army-General Sergei Shoigu, indicate that planning for the military and defense implications of absorbing Crimea into Russia is far advanced, while he has also provided a series of justifications for Moscow’s actions and thanked China for its “support.” Such views show strong and powerful support from within the Russian security elite concerning its present course and reinforce the sense that the Russian view of the crisis is quite different to the received “Western narrative.” The setting and context in which these comments were offered reveals certain underlying subtleties as well as the extent to which Moscow’s defense diplomacy is both confident and exploring mechanisms to avoid isolation (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, April 4).
The Russian Ministry of Defense revealed in late March 2014 that the General Staff was tasked with drawing a “plan of activities for the period to 2020,” to “ensure the security of the Russian Federation in the territory of the Crimean Federal District” (Interfax, March 31). On March 31, Shoigu addressed senior defense officials and commanders during a video conference in the National Center for Defense Management (NTsUO) explaining that he had held meetings with the leadership of the defense ministry and Southern Military District (MD) to consider the “grouping of troops” in Crimea (Interfax, April 4, March 31).
Shoigu said that crews in the NTsUO went on “trial alert duty” on March 28, adding that in the future the center will have the technical capacity to receive data from across Russia in real time, analyzing and assessing information to draw up proposals for “operational and strategic decisions to be taken by the country’s leadership, be it in peacetime or during war.” Shoigu also noted, “Now we need to check in practice the effectiveness of the integrated structure of command and control and, if need be, make changes to the operation of military command-and-control bodies, relevant units of other ministries and agencies.” Shoigu issued instructions concerning the selection and training of personnel to serve in the NTsUO, before turning to a manpower issue directly impacting on Crimea: residents in the peninsula will not be drafted to serve in the Russian Armed forces until 2015, and until the end of 2016 their service would be limited to that region. It is also clear that Crimea is now regarded as part of Southern MD, with de facto “free” basing for the Black Sea Fleet (Interfax, March 31).
Shoigu’s tone and the content of his remarks in Moscow were workman-like but also signifying confidence concerning the business of defense planning for newly absorbed Crimea. In a different setting, some aspects of this approach were particularly emphasized. In early April, the defense ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) met in Khujand, Tajikistan, to discuss security issues, including post-2014 Afghanistan. Shoigu used the opportunity to thank Moscow’s SCO partners for their “support” over Crimea. He passed over the condemnation of the actions issued by the foreign ministry in Tashkent, or the fact that Dushanbe and Bishkek were threatened with unspecified repercussions had they voted the wrong way in the United Nations General Assembly vote to rebuke Russia’s annexation of Crimea (Interfax, ITAR-TASS, April 1).
During that UN vote on March 28, the Central Asian states either abstained or refused to participate entirely. Hence, Shoigu’s spin was almost counterfactual: it focused only on one member of the SCO—China. The Russian defense minister told his Chinese counterpart, General Chang Wanquan, that Moscow appreciates Beijing’s support in the crisis. “We pay particular attention to the implementation of the agreements reached at the highest level. We are grateful to the government of the People’s Republic of China for supporting Russia’s stance on Crimea. We thank you for understanding our steps in the current situation,” Shoigu said. He stressed the “strategic partnership” between Russia and China and characterized ties as “friendly” and “constructive” (Interfax, April 1). While it was diplomatically important to Moscow to avoid any of its Central Asian neighbors voting against Russia in the UN General Assembly, Shoigu largely ignored this and concentrated on praise for Beijing.
However, Shoigu’s justification for the Kremlin’s policy on Ukraine was crafted to suit the unique forum offered by the SCO. In his view, Russia presented “no threat” to Ukrainian statehood. The entire situation had resulted from a color revolution variant that posed a threat to Russia: “I note with deep regret that a scenario in the style of the Arab Spring has been used in this country,” Shoigu added. At this point, Shoigu questioned the viability of Ukraine, saying that “further short-sighted actions” could precipitate its collapse. “The Kyiv authorities’ courting of neo-Nazis and [their] encouragement of Russophobic attitudes could lead to a tragedy not only for Ukraine but also for the whole Europe,” Shoigu asserted (Interfax, April 1).
The Russian defense minister defended the referendum in Crimea as well as its legality and again drew a comparison with Kosovo. “No one denies the results of the referendum and its turnout, but the results of the Crimeans’ expression of will are simply not recognized. According to some forces, it is illegal that Crimea voted for secession from Ukraine, despite the fact that less than ten years ago the UN court recognized the situation in Kosovo as conforming to international law. We see double standards there,” Shoigu complained, offering a typical defense of Moscow’s intervention (Interfax, April 1).
While in the emergencies ministry, Shoigu developed a reputation as a reliable manager of crises, and this first real crisis situation in his role as defense minister has shown that he will continue to play such a role. His promotion of a “defense plan” for Crimea, the promise to avoid conscripting from Crimea until next year and delay Crimeans’ service elsewhere within Russia contrast with his, at times, bombastic justifications of Russian policy for the benefit of the SCO. Shoigu also wants to use the crisis to boost the prestige of serving in the Russian military in order to meet exacting target figures to recruit in excess of 50,000 personnel annually to 2017. But his remarks at the SCO defense ministerial in Tajikistan suggest he shares a sense of the Ukraine crisis as testing Moscow’s role in Eurasia. Thus far, Moscow has appreciated China’s support, in whatever terms that has been offered, and this will be a factor in any further Russian moves to weaken the Ukrainian state in the months to come.