With Crimea now holding a referendum on becoming a part of Russia on March 16, there’s growing anxiety from Russian and foreign experts about another Cold War.

A pro-Ukrainian rally in Simferopol, March 6, 2014. Photo: Reuters

After Crimea’s parliament voted to join the Russian Federation as a constituent of the Russian Federation and scheduled this issue for a referendum on March 16, Russian and foreign experts raised the alarm about escalation of political tension in the region. There’s growing consensus that the Crimea crisis may result in a second Cold War if the world fails to come up with a compromise.

All this seems to be pretty symbolic, controversial and even ill-omened in 2014, the year that sees the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, and the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.

According to Piotr Kościński, the head of the Eastern Program at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, any Russian attempts “to forcibly annex the Crimea” are “unacceptable to the international community” and indeed may lead to a new Cold War.

In contrast, Director of the Public Policy Research Center Vladimir Evseev argues it is the West’s “political myopia” that could lead to a new Cold War.

“The precondition of a new Cold War is not the Crimea referendum, but the West’s position, extremely one-sided and politically short-sighted,” he said in a telephone interview pointing out that the West tries by all means to pressure Russia and “is ready for this to bring instability to the whole territory of Ukraine.”

“We are at the start of a new Cold War,” warns Michael Slobodchikoff, a professor in the Political Science Department at Troy University. “There is very little balanced analysis of the situation, and neither side wants to compromise. The battle over Ukraine is a high stakes zero-sum game that neither side can afford to lose. Both sides seem to be willing to escalate this conflict into a new Cold War.”

According to him, Russia and the West are entrapped in their mutual distrust and opposition, with both sides seeking to vilify each other. Such confrontation may turn Ukraine into an extremely fragile state that requires a great deal of economic aid to survive. The political tensions in the country may lead to an increase in refugees, so that the relations between Russia and the West might be irreparably damaged.

“Ukraine could have become a bridge between Russia and Western Europe that could have prospered by trading with both sides,” Slobodchikoff regrets.

The Crimean parliament’s stance can revive a Cold-War style propaganda war and, probably, arms race, warns former U.S. Ambassador in the Soviet Union Jack Matlock.

“All become losers, but the greatest damage, by far, will be to Russia and Ukraine,” he wrote in his blog in response to the RD question. Matlock points to the long-term damages and repercussions for Russia’s geopolitical record and even the viability of the Eurasian Economic Union.

“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,” he wrote. "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.”

Moscow Carnegie Center Director Dmitri Trenin is more straightforward about the Crimea crisis. The title of his column for Foreign Policy magazine says it all: “Welcome to Cold War II.”

“This will be the dawn of a new period, reminiscent in some ways of the Cold War from the 1940s to 1980s… This new conflict is unlikely to be as intense as the first Cold War; it may not last nearly as long; and – crucially – it will not be the defining conflict of our times. Yet, it will be for real,” he warns pointing out that such competition will bring about more uncertainty in such unstable world and keeping it safe in such times “will be a bigger challenge.”

Viktor Mizin, Deputy Director of MGIMO’s Institute of International Studies, believes that another Cold War is not upcoming, “it’s in full swing” with its overwhelmingly anti-Western sentiment in Russian society. He argues that relations between Russia and the West have deteriorated to the point that even during the Soviet period in the 1970s, they seem to have been much better.

A rally in support for Crimean people in Moscow, March 6, 2014. Photo: RIA Novosty / Maksim Blinov

Assessing the legitimacy of Crimea’s referendum

Kościński believes that the Crimean parliament’s decision to hold a referendum on entry into Russia has no legal basis.

“The Supreme Council of Crimea has no right to do so (in accordance with the Constitution of Crimea and the Constitution of Ukraine),” he told Russia Direct.

Kościński doesn’t see any reason to disengage Crimea from Ukraine, “because the rights of Russians living in the peninsula are absolutely not threatened.” He claims that Russian soldiers are deployed in the Crimea - not only in the Russian military bases, but also around the local Government buildings, airport in Simferopol and Ukrainian military bases.

“So Russia could be rightly accused that it just directs the whole referendum initiative,” Kościński argues. “And that Russia would try de facto to forcibly annex Crimea.”

Evseev argues that the upcoming referendum in Crimea is more legitimate than the recent actions of the current Ukrainian authorities in Kiev, which used violence to seize power. According to him, these authorities “expressed the interests not of all Ukraine, but only its Western part that was presented by radical nationalists.”

“From this point of view, the legitimacy of Crimea’s referendum is fair,” he said. “Crimea has the right to voice its point of view and decide if it should be a part of Ukraine or not, if it should be annexed by Russia or not. And the current authorities that try to stop the free will of its citizens, they don’t have any grounds to prevent this referendum.”  

The problem is that the West doesn’t see the Crimea parliament as legitimate, while Russia doesn’t view Ukraine’s interim government as legitimate because the opposition “took power in a non-democratic fashion,” Slobodchikoff believes.

“The West fundamentally views the Crimean parliament as being illegitimate while Russian troops are stationed in Crimea,” he told Russia Direct. “Any referendum to join Russia would be viewed as being influenced by the Russian military and thus nothing more than Russia actively grabbing more territory.” 

The problem is aggravated by principal legislative differences between Russia and the West on Ukrainian and Crimean authorities. This hampers any attempts to reach a compromise.

“Russia will abide by the results of the referendum to join Russia, as presumably the results of the referendum will overwhelmingly support secession from Ukraine and its accession to Russia,” Slobodchikoff explains. “No matter the results of this referendum, the West will deny its legitimacy and Russia will accept the legitimacy.  There seems to be no compromise in this.”

On the top of that, the situation seems to be complicated by the interim Ukrainian government, which claims that any referendum should be a nationwide referendum and not just a local one.

Likewise, Mizin sees Crimea’s stance as “an incorrect and very dangerous step” that will be a precedent for Europe with its numerous frozen conflicts and territorial disputes.

“From the point of view of international law, we can talk about the illegitimacy [of the Crimea referendum],” he said, warning Russia against its long-term geopolitical consequences.

“They certainly won't view any referendum taking place in Crimea as legitimate, which further entrenches the main actors in this crisis,” Slobodchikoff said, warning that Crimea’s referendum may encourage Eastern Ukraine to follow soon, which would further fuel tensions. “Ukraine's economy is already destroyed, Ukraine will no longer be a viable state.”