Vladimir Putin recently pointed out to President Obama that when Russia objected to Kosovo being detached from its ally Serbia, the U.S. went ahead anyway in supporting Kosovo’s independence, backed up by NATO troops. (To this day Russia does not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign nation.)
So why, he asked, is Crimea any different?
No doubt, the manner in which Russia rushed to disperse its troops, promote a referendum, and then annex Crimea was contrary to the spirit of the 1994 Budapest agreement and the Ukrainian constitution. A more ideal form of such change would have been for a new Ukrainian government to be elected in new national elections, and then for that government to have presided over a referendum in Crimea, and to have recognized its outcome. Yet that outcome was very likely to be the same.
After all, the people of Crimea never chose to be part of Ukraine; they were part of Russia for hundreds of years before Khrushchev transferred their territory to the Ukrainian SSR, a move that Vladimir Putin now claims was unconstitutional even then. Nor did they have a chance to choose the new government in Kiev that is so loudly lamenting what has happened; Crimea had supported the Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovich who was driven from office and deposed by revolutionary, not constitutional, means. It seems the desire to part of Russia was widespread and genuine.
So the real question to ask about Russia’s annexation of Crimea is not whether it was legal or not — lots of things happen that are of dubious legality, including the overthrow of Yanukovich — that are eagerly embraced by Europe and the U.S. The real question is what does this action portend, what will be the consequences, and what is the importance of seeking to fight or reverse it?
Overall, I have to say “not much.” Crimea was strategically and historically of great significance to Russia; and its people seemed to desire to return to Russia (even if the 96% vote in favor is more reminiscent of Soviet election returns, there is no reason to think a majority of Crimea’s population opposes the change). It was also the case that Russia already had thousands of troops stationed within Crimea, so that an external invasion was not necessary to secure it, nor could it be readily defended. The change was thus peaceful, if under military supervision.
Other regions of Ukraine are very different; even if the cities in the eastern part of the country are strongly pro-Russia, the population as a whole is Ukrainian even in the east. And if Russia wanted to detach other portions of the country by force, it would have to stage a major military expedition, and probably deal with opposition and use violence.
Therefore, I do not think it likely that Putin’s move in Crimea means that tanks will soon be heading toward Kiev (as one anxious columnist stated). What it does mean is that Russia thinks of itself as a great power and will defend its interests accordingly; something we should not ever have overlooked. Putin has said he has no plans to invade or detach other parts of Ukraine, and for the moment I believe him. The costs and risks at this point are too high; better to absorb Crimea and invest in making it look better, while the rest of Ukraine struggles. Russia can exert other pressures on Ukraine through its economic and energy leverage for now.
Meanwhile, Russia can laugh at the measures the West has used to express its displeasure (indeed, Russia’s parliament passed a resolution asking for ALL of its members, not just a few, to be included on the list of persons to be sanctioned, as they all want the honor of sacrificing for the glory of restoring Crimea to Russia). Yet Russia should be concerned that if it takes further actions to dismember Ukraine, truly serious economic sanctions could be imposed that would cause it real pain.
The truly crucial issue in all this is not Crimea, which is absorbing so much attention, but the stability and effectiveness of the new government in Kiev. What we are seeing now is a major shift in the region; Crimea has reverted to Russia, but Ukraine seems to be moving much more strongly out of Russia’s orbit and closer to Europe. But this shift is in its infancy, and cannot be sustained if the new government in Kiev falters. Should economic stagnation or political deadlock and chaos follow, as happened after the Orange Revolution of 2004, the revolutionaries of today could be marginalized like their predecessors, and a pro-Russian regime return to power.
So rather than huffing and puffing against Russia, it is much more vital for the U.S. and Europe to turn their energies to giving political, economic, and technical support to the new government in Kiev. They need major economic injections to stabilize the economy and maintain the government; they need support for ensuring that national elections are prompt, clean, and beyond reproach; and could use technical advice on managing the budget and integrating their economy more effectively and more competitively with Europe, including managing their energy needs and building resilience against Russian pressure.
Let Russia keep Crimea; gaining a more democratic, economically stronger, and pro-Western Ukraine is a much greater prize. That also is what the majority of the people of Ukraine seem to desire; Europe should therefore focus on that goal as its top priority.
Hectoring Putin about the Crimea may make politicians feel good; and certainly if politicians believed that Russia had become just another large, peaceful country that would go along with whatever happened in the world, that foolishness should be abandoned. (I confess that I was shocked that politicians were so surprised that, after a revolution that upset Russian vital Russian interests in Ukraine, Russia would take action to protect those interests. Really? You expected passive acceptance? Then you really don’t know Russia).
The transformation of Ukraine into a stable, prosperous democracy will take time, and be much less visible in the daily headlines than grandstanding over Crimea. yet it is far more important to the future of Ukraine, and Europe. We have to hope that politicians can shift their focus and invest in what truly matters.