Russia Should Leave Crimea in Ukraine

Pavel Koshkin, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Russia Direct, has asked me the following question:

Today Crimea’s parliament have voted for its accession to Russia as a subject of the federation and scheduled this issue for a referendum on March 16. How can this stance escalate the tensions around the Crimea crisis? Some Russian experts (like Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin) argue that it may drive Russia and the West at another cold war . Do you agree? Why? What are the implications for Russia, the U.S. and the EU?”

The appeal by the Crimean self-appointed parliament is very serious indeed, and if it results in the Russian Federation accepting Crimea as a subject of the federation, it will rebound seriously to Russia’s disadvantage. Do you think Kazakhstan will stay as a willing and useful member of the Eurasian economic union with an example like this threatening it? Nazarbayev will likely play his cards much more carefully than the Galicians have, but he has proved a very skilful player and has China covering his back. That is just one of many possible repercussions damaging to Russia’s real interests, entirely aside from the costs of reviving a Cold-War style propaganda war and possible arms race that nobody needs or wants. All become losers, but the greatest damage, by far, will be to Russia and Ukraine.

I had assumed up to now that the Russian government was signaling that it had to be consulted in the formation of any new government in Ukraine, and that it would exercise a droit de regard over the arrangements that affect Russian interests and those of Russian speakers. That would be assertion of a “right” that other counties cannot accept formally but could and should implicitly recognize as a fact of life, however inconvenient.

At this point, the Russian government, in its own interest, should announce officially that it would not accept Crimea as a subject of the Russian Federation unless the conditions in the Helsinki Final Act are met. (That is, that border adjustments be agreed by both countries involved.) It might well note that, in the past, this principle has been violated (think Kosovo), but that Russia wishes to restore respect for the international norms agreed to in Helsinki in 1975. Russia could also note that the same agreement has provision for the protection of civil and human rights, and that Russia has a right to expect that any Ukrainian government will abide by them as a political obligation to the international community.

Russia has established that it will do whatever necessary to protect what it defines as vital security interests in regard to Ukrainian territory. It is in a position to make sure, with Western support, that Ukrainian reform does not threaten Russian security interests or those of Russian-speaking Ukrainians. But this will be possible only if Russia makes clear that its object is not to grab the Crimea or any other territory now within Ukraine.

Entirely aside from the principles of the UN Charter, international law, and the Helsinki Final Act, Russia has a treaty commitment to the United States and the United Kingdom to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. What it received in return was quite substantial, the possession (for destruction) of the nuclear weapons on Ukrainian territory. Does Russia really want to violate arrangements that allowed us to reduce the danger of nuclear weapons threatening us all? Does Russia think that its current actions will encourage or discourage nuclear proliferation? After all, it will be argued that if Ukraine had not returned its nukes to Russia, Russia would not dare try to grab its territory.

We will all suffer, but Russia most of all, if its actions encourage a proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of more of its neighbors and Russia’s isolation from a rapidly developing and changing world economy.

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6 Responses to Russia Should Leave Crimea in Ukraine

  1. Pingback: La Russia dovrebbe lasciare la Crimea all’Ucraina | Gianvito Scaringi

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  4. Jim Nail says:

    The Ukrainian intervention may well have negative consequences for Russia, but there is something of an agency problem here: what is bad for Russia might be necessary for Putin.

    A dictator’s strength depends on perceptions of the dictator’s strength. Putin’s end can come quickly, if people ever really stop being afraid. This is what happened to Yanukovich on the Maidan, as Putin no doubt warned him it would, and it has happened many times before throughout human history. Putin’s psychology is extraordinarily well-attuned to this fact. It is what makes the analogy of a schoolyard bully so extremely accurate. He is both brutal and, at his core, terrified.

    That’s why he could not afford to let the Maidan outcome stand, and it’s also why he can’t back down from the Crimea. In fact, there’s a good chance that further steps still lie ahead in Eastern or possibly the entire Ukraine. (I also think he will use the current distractions to crack down hard on his domestic opponents.) Moreover, once Putin and his entourage fully realize that they have won the current stand-off, who knows what may be next. Their fears can quickly tip over into a sarcastic triumphalism — they may even cast an eye on the Baltics, despite those countries’ NATO membership. If so, are we postured credibly? What will we do?

    We can still reverse the momentum. The Maidan was a huge and inspirational victory, and a strong sanctions regime imposed by a united West would embolden the opposition to Putin throughout Russia. The Russian public is currently rather hypnotized by the unceasing propaganda, as if by a snake-charmer’s melody, but this is partly due to the manifest success of Putin’s policies. The opportunists in Putin’s own “Unified Russia” system will stand behind him precisely until the moment they see advantage elsewhere. Outside “United Russia” there is a massive reservoir of anti-Putin feeling, particularly but not only in Moscow. He was nearly swept away in recent waves of unrest. Despite falsifications, arrests, police interference and a monopoly on the media, all recent elections have shown that the regime is far from unchallengeable. There is a good possibility that sanctions could help topple Putin.

    I am sure, at the very least, that he believes this. A vigorous response now would give him food for careful thought before his next adventure.

    Unfortunately Europe has never been able to unite around any policy that is bad for its own wallet, while the US has little if any moral sway after Iraq, Guantanamo, torture, the NSA revelations, etc. So what lies ahead is presumably just further bluster, perhaps some harmless American solo initiatives, before everyone settles back down and waits for Putin’s next move. It’s not exactly Munich 1938, but it’s close enough. Ultimately everything will ride on the calculations, or miscalculations, of a half-informed decision-maker and his coterie of sycophants, opposed by vacillating democratic leaders who will gradually feel the need to bluff more convincingly. The outlook is for risky scenarios. We could be heading for another war in Europe.

  5. Jack says:

    Jim, thank you for your comments. I think they fundamentally misinterpret the situation and that Western pressure will do more harm than good, particularly to Ukraine which is divided on many issues and likely to become more so unless the West and Russia can cooperate to help the Ukrainians develop a political system and economy that can compete in the world of the 21st century. To do so, Ukrainians must develop a sense of national identity that is not based solely on the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture, but which accepts that ethnic Russians and Ukrainians who prefer to speak Russian are citizens with equal rights. Only the Ukrainians can do this for themselves; outsiders cannot. But pressures from the outside, whether from Russia or from the West tend to divide Ukrainians rather than uniting them.

    • Jim Nail says:

      Jack, I certainly agree with you that my proposal as stated above will not help the Ukrainians. There are things we can perhaps do to help them, but to be honest I see no easy road ahead. This country emerged from the long darkness of famine, war, occupation and dictatorship only to be thoroughly plundered by competing local elites during its post-Soviet phase. If the Ukrainians are to develop a political system and economy, as you put it, that can compete in the 21st century, there are so many things that have to be done. From cutting energy and other subsidies and rationalizing the tax system to modernizing the law, reforming the courts, cleaning up the police — in nearly every sphere of social interaction, concerted effort will be needed. And, though no one likes to admit it, people will be hurt by the process. This sort of systemic transformation, if it is to succeed rather than break down amid mutual recriminations, requires a sense of unity and shared purpose that I agree cannot be imposed by outsiders at all, and certainly not by the West and Russia intervening at cross-purposes to one another.

      I think I also agree with you, that what is needed is a sense of national identity for Ukrainians that transcends language and ethnicity. I am not entirely sure I agree about this, but I think I do. The reason for my doubt may be clarified by looking at the countries that have been most markedly successful at post-Soviet transition. I would say these include East Germany, first of all, then Estonia and Latvia, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. (I don’t list Slovakia and Lithuania because I haven’t been following them.) In all of these, the population accepted enormous sacrifices in the name, very specifically, of overcoming Soviet domination and the legacy of that domination. In most cases a nationalistic or even jingoist unifying principle was conspicuous, including some excesses of home-grown right-wing extremism. The use of national/ethnic/linguistic devices was perhaps especially important in the Baltics, where it fed on and heightened tensions with large Russian minorities. Although the outcomes seem mostly good at the moment, some of these were ugly developments, and I do think I agree with you that other mobilizing symbols of national identity ought to be preferable.

      Turning back to Ukraine though, the problem is that the dictator of Russia has organized a takeover of key parts of the country and appears poised to expand that aggression. The fact that this is being done in the name of an ethnic/linguistic minority does not mean that it needed to be done or that the minority was genuinely oppressed. The greatest ethnic tensions in Ukraine at the moment appear to be related to Russia’s own efforts to stir up aggressions in the area it occupies. The propaganda is unrelenting, and KGB agents have taken a leading role in events.

      This should not be confused with a failure by the Kiev leadership to respect the Russian minority. It is something very different and altogether insidious. And if we can roll it back or at least create a strong disincentive for further actions of its type, and in the process perhaps even bring the dictator down, then I think we should. We will be helping the Russians, the people of Russia I mean; and although we will not be helping the Ukrainians achieve modernity, we may at least be able to prevent them being rolled under by Putin.

      Unfortunately, there is another issue, which I think I would like to call “false consciousness.” Perhaps inevitably, ethnic/linguistic issues have grown intertwined with core political dissatisfactions in Ukraine. This has operated in both directions, as paradoxical as that may seem on a superficial view. The ethnic Ukrainians are blaming Russians for the same things that the ethnic Russians blame on Kiev. I suspect this is one of the main centrifugal forces in Ukraine today.

      Thus the victors of the Maidan tended to identify Yanukovich with Russia, for many well-known reasons. What may be less appreciated is that the Crimean Russians apparently saw Yanukovich as an outsider too. After all, he ruled from Kiev, continuing and probably worsening the corruption and machine politics of the central government, and he was the enemy of any local enfranchisement or democratization, be it ethnically Russian or Ukrainian or Tatar. Hence many of the angry Russian Crimeans demonstrating in favor of unification with Putin’s regime are motivated as much by anti-Yanukovich sentiment as the Maidan demonstrators were. It’s just that they think they are against Kiev.

      One of the most promising features of the Maidan revolution for me is that it seems to promise just the sort of non-nationalist unifying purpose that Ukraine most needs. The pro-Europe sentiment, the anti-corruption slogans, the wish to start a new life, not to repeat the politics of the past… these seem to be just exactly the kind of public motivations that could work. Of necessity, these sentiments are anti-Soviet. They are a desire to throw off the corruption and cynicism and gray strangulation of civil society that are the real legacy of the USSR. Incidentally, the desire to throw off that legacy is what motivates much of the Russian opposition to Putin, too, in my opinion. And this is the true reason for Putin’s intervention in Crimea. He needs to nip that hopeful optimistic future-oriented movement in the bud, because he knows that if it spreads it will be the end of him.

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