“Crimea is coming home” – Russia changes the game

This weekend, Putin took the Crimea crisis and put it beyond diplomacy. As far as he is concerned, after the referendum last Sunday Crimea is now part of the Russian Federation, making negotiation unnecessary. This also makes all the Ukrainian soldiers besieged in their bases across Crimea foreign occupiers on Russian soil, and last night saw the first casualty of the conflict – apparently a junior officer named Kakurin. Other Ukrainian military men across the peninsula have been kidnapped or attacked. In response the Ukrainian government has allowed its soldiers to fire in self-defence. Whether Ukraine backs down or starts further violence, in either case Russia has changed the game of international politics in a stunning way. So today it’s important to not only look at the immediate consequences for Crimea, but also at what this means for international politics.

A woman casts her vote in the Crimean referendum

Firstly, the basics – in a referendum on Sunday 93% of Crimeans who turned out to vote chose to join the Russian Federation. While there is no doubt that a large percentage of Crimeans want to join Russia, the referendum was against the Ukrainian constitution, conducted on short notice under Russian occupation, and boycotted by the Tatar population and many ethnic Ukrainians, who would have voted against Russia. As a result Russia is the only country in the world that has recognised the referendum.

The streets of Sevastopol filled up with celebration after the results became clear, and yesterday the happy mood among its Russian population continued. After a speech to the Russian parliament Putin signed a bill that brings Crimea into the Russian Federation. This speech and the one he gave afterwards to a crowd in Red Square were extremely important. They show Putin’s vision of a strong Russia that doesn’t shy away from confrontation with the West, and seems a very clear return to the rhetoric of Cold War days. Throughout the speech he focused on the aggressive nature of Western countries “ruled by the gun”, and stated repeatedly that Crimea, and even Ukraine as well, are one with Russia. The Russian nationalism that showed in Putin’s words indicates that in Putin’s mind this crisis is about standing up to the West, and not about Ukraine.

But for Ukrainians in Crimea, this crisis is very much about them. Across the peninsula there are soldiers in their bases who are wondering how to proceed. They have been given permission to fire in self-defence, but they know that this will mean their death against the vastly superior Russian Army.  Yesterday soldiers were already attacked by members of the pro-Russian militias, who killed one soldier and wounded others, though the Crimean authorities claim snipers were responsible. Russian soldiers or militia members even stole Ukrainian soldiers’ IDs and money, along with their weapons. Today though has seen Ukrainian soldiers beginning to withdraw from their bases, though it’s not yet clear whether this will continue. Ordinary citizens will too be wondering what the future holds for them in a region where 90% of the electricity and other utilities is provided by Ukraine.

So as I’ve asked many times since the beginning of the Euromaidan protests, what happens next? On Tuesday I had the opportunity to attend a lecture on nuclear security by Ivo Daalder, an adviser to Presidents Clinton and Obama, and the American ambassador to NATO until 2013. His lecture also covered Crimea, and he had some interesting insight into the crisis.

Firstly he pointed out that there is not really a diplomatic solution anymore. It has become a two-sided issue – either Crimea is Russia or it is Ukraine. There is no middle ground anymore, and no room to negotiate. This leaves the West with two methods. They can try to deter Russia from pushing forward into Eastern Ukraine by steadily increasing the economic pressure through sanctions, like the ones already implemented. They can also try to compel the Russians to leave the still legally sovereign Ukrainian territory of Crimea, though this will be a lot harder. Putin seems here to stay.

And what will Russia do next? Here too Ivo Daalder had some suggestions. He sees three possibilities for Putin’s reasoning and plans:

  1. This is still about Crimea and the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol – Putin wanted control of the area and just took the chance offered by the turmoil in Ukraine.
  2. This is about forcing Ukraine to stay in the Russian sphere of influence. The country seemed to be moving away from Russia and to Europe, and taking over Crimea was Putin’s way of weakening Ukraine. If this is the way Putin is thinking then there is a chance the Russian army will move further into Eastern or Southern Ukraine. Partially to force their claim to ‘protect’ Russian speakers, and partially to make the occupation of Crimea economically possible. As I mentioned above, the province relies on Ukraine for all its resources.
  3. This is about rebuilding the Soviet Union. President Putin has said before that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. As Ambassador Daalder said yesterday, that means that “the greatest achievement of the 21st century would be the reconstitution of the Soviet Union”. It is entirely possibly that this is just part of Putin’s larger plan to bring millions of ethnic Russians back into the Russian Federation.

Ambassador Daalder believes, and so do I, that the second option is the most likely. But to be honest, nobody knows at the moment. This is a true change in international politics – not since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 has one country annexed part of another. I also can’t imagine that the situation locally in Crimea will get better. The Ukrainian soldiers there are under incredible pressure, and even if they withdraw the peninsula is still a divided and uncertain region. Crimea will remain one of the tensest confrontations of the post-Cold War world for a good time yet.

If you want to read more about this year’s events in Ukraine, you can find all my blog posts on the revolution and Crimean crisis at the “Ukraine” tab at the top of the page.

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