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.