The decision to protect the Crimea won’t lead to similar attempts by Russia to re-draw borders elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
Pro-Ukrainian supporters raise their hands to symbolize a referendum and remember the victims of violence in recent protests in Kiev as they take part in a rally in Simferopol on March 9, 2014. Photo: Reuters
The decision by the Russian government to support the Crimea, as shown by Moscow’s readiness to send troops to Ukraine to protect the region’s Russian-speaking population, has sparked a furious reaction from the rest of the world. However this decision by Russia is obviously one born of necessity, and was taken with the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine in mind – a tragedy which can possibly only be compared to the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.
In the midst of the chaos that is descending on Ukraine, Russia’s actions are fully consistent with its own national interests. Russian policy in Ukraine is based on four key pillars.
Firstly, Russia does not recognize the current Ukrainian government in Kiev as legitimate. Russia maintains specific (unofficial) contact with the Ukrainian authorities, but Moscow’s official position is very clearly defined: There has been a coup d’état in Ukraine and the decisions by the ‘downsized’ Verkhovnaya Rada (Upper House of Parliament) have no validity in law.
Secondly, Moscow officially approved sanctions against individuals it has characterized as Ukrainian radicals and neo-Nazis. Should they enter Russian territory, these individuals will be subject to legal proceedings in accordance with the statutory procedures in the Russian Federation.
Thirdly, Russia has frozen economic aid to Kiev, at least until a legitimate government comes to power in Ukraine. This covers both the allocation of the next tranche of the promised $15 billion of credit as well as discounts on buying natural gas (these discounts will cease after the first quarter of this year). Apart from that, Russia is putting pressure on the Ukrainian oligarchs who supported the coup.
Fourthly, according to official channels, the current Ukrainian government is aware that, should the demonstrations in Russian-speaking regions and the Crimea be suppressed, Russia will respond with maximum force. Moreover, Moscow has taken the most decisive steps in relation to Crimean autonomy, having taken the situation on the peninsula under its control.
It is this same Crimean question that needs to be examined with the utmost care. The decision to protect the Crimea from the threat of Maidan is one of the most pivotal in post-Soviet politics. Russia is the first nation to use force in setting out its interests in the region (including the use of military force). Moreover, Russia is prepared to run the risk of a second Cold War and is not afraid of a serious deterioration in relations with the United States and the European Union.
What has brought about such an abrupt change in policy by Russia?
The main point is that, from Moscow’s point of view, destabilization in the Crimea would signify a threat to the inhabitants of the peninsula, the majority of whom are Russian. Apart from that, the safety of Russian servicemen in the Black Sea fleet based in the Crimea would be called into question. When one considers that the issue of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO has become a pressing one in recent years, Russia could lose its military presence in the Crimea.
However, historical and cultural factors cannot be discounted. The images of Sevastopol as ‘the Russian sailor’s city’ and as the symbol of resistance against fascism have become firmly fixed in the collective consciousness of Russia’s citizens. Its defense, therefore, is considered absolutely essential in Russia and the need to support the Crimea is shared among many Russians.
Russian society also reacted negatively to the presence (whether real or perceived) of representatives of neo-Nazi and neo-Fascist groups in Kiev. Therefore, when the threat emerged of far right radicals entering the Crimea, Russia’s reaction was immediate. In this case, Russia was proactive and did not wait for the extremists to make the first move.
Considering the events of the last few weeks, one acknowledges that the Crimean question has become the most important question in European politics. Russia has all but announced that if Western partners refuse to accept its arguments and act to disregard its interests, Moscow is prepared to take any independent actions that are deemed necessary.
The consequences of the situation that has arisen concerning the Crimea could be very far-reaching. Nevertheless, it is doubtful that there will be talk of ‘re-drawing borders’ elsewhere in the post-Soviet space in the near future.
There is still a chance for a diplomatic solution to the crisis that has broken out in Ukraine. However the Crimean question would appear, outwardly, to have been resolved. It is doubtful that Russia will now abandon the Crimea. This is the geopolitical reality that now confronts us.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.