How the Russian Hand Was Forced in Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (Presidential Press and Information Office of the Russian Federation)

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin accepted Crimea as a subject of the Russian Federation. It was the West, as he specified it in his speech to the Duma, that compelled him to make this decision. Earlier, Putin indicated that he was not interested in bringing Crimea into the Russian fold. However, pro-NATO sentiments among the interim Kiev government in Ukraine proved too much for Moscow. The potential expansion of NATO into Crimea, and the threat to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, became a clear “red line” that Washington had crossed. In Putin’s own words:

… we have already heard declarations from Kiev about Ukraine soon joining NATO. What would this have meant for Crimea and Sevastopol in the future? It would have meant that NATO’s navy would be right there in this city of Russia’s military glory, and this would create not an illusory but a perfectly real threat to the whole of southern Russia. These are things that could have become reality were it not for the choice the Crimean people made, and I want to say thank you to them for this.

But let me say too that we are not opposed to cooperation with NATO, for this is certainly not the case. For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors. Of course, most of them are wonderful guys, but it would be better to have them come and visit us, be our guests, rather than the other way round.

In Russia, the decision was greeted with euphoria; the vast majority of Russians (over 90%) agreed with the Crimean referendum. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed with it too, saying that the people of Crimea “corrected a Soviet mistake” and that the West should celebrate this as a victory of self-determination and should not place any sanctions on Russia. Indeed, for many Russians, Putin’s move in Crimea has cemented his place in history as a truly great Russian leader and patriot, alongside the likes of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.

On a less celebratory note, the events in Crimea will also have the long-term effect of further discrediting liberal voices in Russian politics who promote more partnership and cooperation with the United States. Washington’s efforts toward NATO expansion and democracy promotion have only served to discredit the US in Russia. As Putin pointed out in his speech, Washington has too often violated international law and worked without any consideration for Russian interests in the world:

Our western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” To make this aggression look legitimate, they force the necessary resolutions from international organisations, and if for some reason this does not work, they simply ignore the UN Security Council and the UN overall.

This happened in Yugoslavia; we remember 1999 very well. It was hard to believe, even seeing it with my own eyes, that at the end of the 20th century, one of Europe’s capitals, Belgrade, was under missile attack for several weeks, and then came the real intervention. Was there a UN Security Council resolution on this matter, allowing for these actions? Nothing of the sort. And then, they hit Afghanistan, Iraq, and frankly violated the UN Security Council resolution on Libya, when instead of imposing the so-called no-fly zone over it they started bombing it too.

There was a whole series of controlled “colour” revolutions. Clearly, the people in those nations, where these events took place, were sick of tyranny and poverty, of their lack of prospects; but these feelings were taken advantage of cynically. Standards were imposed on these nations that did not in any way correspond to their way of life, traditions, or these peoples’ cultures. As a result, instead of democracy and freedom, there was chaos, outbreaks in violence and a series of upheavals. The Arab Spring turned into the Arab Winter.

The question now is: what next? What will happen in the post-Crimea crisis era?

In an analysis that I wrote last week, I highlighted five reasons why absorbing Crimea would be detrimental to Russia. Of those five, the first three are arguably not major points and are effectively moot. Ukraine will not seek nuclear weapons, the markets did not react badly to Putin’s move, and the impact of sanctions has been (and will continue to be) marginal. On the latter point, the West knows it can only do so much. If they would implement full-scale sanctions, it would hurt them (especially Europe) as much or more than Russia. Moscow has very good relations with Beijing and has already been looking eastward anyway (today it has indicated as much). If full economic sanctions were put in place, it will be the EU, not Russia, that will suffer. Heavy sanctions would potentially have the effect of compounding the already-unstable situation in the Eurozone. Further, if the EU remains committed to the Kiev government in Ukraine, they will be obliged to give money to them too.

That said, my last two points still remain concerns. I mentioned the domestic response in Ukraine. My impression has been that, out of a sense of national feeling, many Ukrainians throughout the country would feel hurt by Crimea’s accession to Russia. This is still arguably a concern for Moscow, which ultimately still seeks to bring Ukraine into its Eurasian Customs Union at the end of the day. In his speech to the Duma, Putin sought to mitigate the potential fallout from his move by emphasizing that it was forced by geopolitical circumstances and that it had nothing to do with the Ukrainian people:

I also want to address the people of Ukraine. I sincerely want you to understand us: we do not want to harm you in any way, or to hurt your national feelings. We have always respected the territorial integrity of the Ukrainian state, incidentally, unlike those who sacrificed Ukraine’s unity for their political ambitions. They flaunt slogans about Ukraine’s greatness, but they are the ones who did everything to divide the nation. Today’s civil standoff is entirely on their conscience. I want you to hear me, my dear friends. Do not believe those who want you to fear Russia, shouting that other regions will follow Crimea. We do not want to divide Ukraine; we do not need that. As for Crimea, it was and remains a Russian, Ukrainian, and Crimean-Tatar land.

I repeat, just as it has been for centuries, it will be a home to all the peoples living there. What it will never be and do is follow in Bandera’s footsteps!

Crimea is our common historical legacy and a very important factor in regional stability. And this strategic territory should be part of a strong and stable sovereignty, which today can only be Russian. Otherwise, dear friends (I am addressing both Ukraine and Russia), you and we – the Russians and the Ukrainians – could lose Crimea completely, and that could happen in the near historical perspective. Please think about it.

Another serious concern that I discussed was the possible impact that Crimea’s accession to Russia would have on further NATO expansion, and that it may give credibility to those Cold War lobbyists and Russia-bashers in the West who want to bring NATO to Russia’s doorstep. Fortunately for now, it seems as though the West has relented on bringing Ukraine into NATO. Ukraine’s interim Prime Minister, Arseniy “Yats” Yatsenyuk now seems to be emphasizing that Kiev does not seek NATO membership and that it supports a possible federalization of Ukraine (ideally on an oblast-by-oblast level), two things that Moscow wants to see.

Still, influential far-right forces in Kiev such as Svoboda and Right Sector may force Yatsenyuk to reconsider these positions. Right Sector especially seems intent on provoking an open conflict with Russia, something that the West, Ukraine, and Russia do not want or need. Already yesterday, Ukraine’s national security chief, Andrey Parubiy (the co-founder of Svoboda and the former leader of the paramilitary far-right Patriots of Ukraine) has issued a statement declaring Ukraine’s intention to leave the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), to have Russians apply for entry visas, and to declare Crimea a “demilitarized zone.”

Yet, efforts toward NATO expansion seem to continue unabated in the Caucasus. Here Washington has shown a clear interest in granting Georgia an MAP (Membership Action Plan) by September this year. The Russian daily Kommersant said as much last week, though for those closely watching developments in Georgia, this was nothing new, especially after Irakli Garibashvili’s trip to Washington last month. Significantly, yesterday NATO announced that it will be sending a delegation to Tbilisi next week. Meanwhile, French President François Hollande, a friend of Washington, has also announced a future visit to Georgia in May.

Having Georgia as a NATO member would be a major strategic victory for Washington over Moscow and would pave the way for NATO military bases within close range of Sochi, Grozny, Vladikavkaz, and Makhachkala. Moscow will never accept this and, as I have previously written, Moscow will work to strike some sort of a deal with Tbilisi before autumn. Already this week Moscow made two strategic moves: they reopened the Georgian Military Road fully for the first time since 2006, and Grigory Karasin, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister and representative for Russo-Georgian relations, held discussions on the Abkhaz and South Ossetian borders with Georgia with UN representative Antti Turunen, OSCE Special Representative for the South Caucasus Angelo Gnaedinger and Permanent Representative of the European Union, to the OSCE Thierry Bechet.

Karasin is due to meet with his Georgian counterpart Zurab Abashidze next week, a very significant meeting that may pave the way for a direct meeting between Putin and Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili and/or Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. The Karasin-Abashidze meeting has already been delayed twice, and it remains to be seen how this situation will finally develop.

Addendum (21 March 2014): Dr. Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University, has informed me that “calls to bring Ukraine into NATO have not diminished among NATO reps and advocates in Europe.” I agree and I must emphasize that I do not think Ukraine has left the NATO agenda. However, I do think that Washington has advised Yatsenyuk to “cool it” hence why he is now saying that he does not want to Ukraine to join NATO. Yet, this is only for the time being and I still suspect that the ultimate objective is to bring Ukraine into the alliance anyway (though Moscow will never allow this).

This is why I wrote “Fortunately for now, it seems as though the West has relented on bringing Ukraine into NATO.” Instead, for the present time, Georgia appears to be the focus for more immediate NATO expansion.

Again, though, I must emphasize that I certainly do not think that Ukraine has totally vanished from the view of NATO expansionists. In fact, I am still concerned that, in the aftermath of the Crimean crisis, NATO expansion is now being viewed as a “wise move” among many circles. NATO expansionists, Russia-bashers, and Cold War hawks will be seen as correct in their predictions that “the Russian bear was always a threat” and that “we need NATO to counter Russia.” Their foolishness, irresponsibility and arrogance is now being viewed as “wisdom” and “foresight.” It seems to somehow reaffirm and vindicate the notion that “poking and antagonizing the bear” was a “well-informed move” and that it enhances the security of the United States and the West. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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