Russia’s annexation of the Crimea – which is exactly what it is – has taken everybody by surprise, even those who took note of Russia’s actions against Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. Russia has always coveted the return of the Crimea, and with good reason consider Khrushchev’s gift of the region to the Ukraine in the 1950s to be somewhat of a historical injustice, but few expected Russia to move so boldly and so swiftly.
Of course, in hindsight, it’s easy to see how this happened. With Russia’s economy failing to deliver the promised increase in living standards for ordinary Russians (the standards are improving, but too slowly, and vital reforms remain as distant as ever) and the population becoming increasingly weary with the seemingly indefinite presence of Putin and his gang of bent oligarchs, this was too good an opportunity to pass up: nothing rallies the Russian population in support of their government more than an overt display of military might, with the possible exception of sticking two fingers up to the United States over any issue you can imagine. Also, I think Putin does genuinely believe that Crimea should belong to Russia and that the interests of Russia are best served by this annexation. Even if he wasn’t in need of shoring up his own popularity ratings, I think he would have taken this opportunity.
When you couple this with the fact that the Americans have a complete pansy in the White House, interested in himself, his image, and nothing else; plus a Europe led (and I use that term loosely) by a divided and war-weary Britain, a Germany whose commercial ties to Russia have already seen a former Chancellor go to work for the Russian government the morning after his resignation, and a France who has as much interest in Russia as they do cricket; and the fact that Putin has seen how ineffectual all parties were in dealing with the mess in Syria, and it’s easy to see why Putin took his chance.
His actions do have some precedent. The excuse of intervening to “protect its citizens” is one that has been tried and tested, and I’m sure Putin cited this knowing full well that the Americans wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. But rather than stop there, Putin announced that the “secession” of the Crimea is similar the secession of Kosovo from Serbia, in that the west set a precedent whereby the secession of a region did not need the approval from a country’s central authority. Now he might have a point, but he’s relying on the fact that nobody will notice the difference between the US (and others) supporting the secession of Kosovo such that it becomes an independent state, and Russia supporting the secession of the Crimea such that it becomes part of Russia. Putin would have been better off not making this comparison, but ever since the day he saw his paratroopers make fools of themselves by landing in Pristina airport in a futile gesture (and subsequently having to scrounge food from NATO soldiers on the other side of the fence), this has been an itch he has been desperately wanting to scratch. A shrewd statesman would not let emotions guide his conduct, but Putin has always been a long way from the shrewd statesman he so desperately wants to be.
Regardless of the historical context of the Crimea, Putin’s decision to annex part of a neighbouring country is somewhat at odds with his earlier insistence that the Russian Federation must remain whole to the point that Grozny must be flattened and the Chechen population beaten into submission in order to drive the point home. Would Putin uphold the principle he has applied to the Crimea if the population of Karelia held a referendum to return to Finland, or the Kuril Islands to Japan? No, he wouldn’t, but Putin has been emboldened of late.
His greatest victory of recent times was the thwarting of western attempts to end the Syrian civil war. Having run rings around the hapless John Kerry and Barack Obama – which is hardly difficult (for all his faults, ask yourself if this Crimean situation would have arisen with Dubya in the White House) – Russia felt it had got one over on the US and the west. Which it had, I suppose. But to what end? Regardless as to whether western intervention would have been a good thing, the Syrian civil war still rages with horrific civilian casualties and will continue to do so indefinitely, and Russian interests have been advanced…well, how? I suppose they still have their ally Bashar al-Assad in some sort of presidential role, albeit in a country that is tearing itself to pieces. Great, that’ll pay dividends, I’m sure. But thwarting the perceived ambitions of the west is the goal for Putin and an awful lot of Russians: as has been pointed out by dozens of commentators they play a zero-sum game whereby what is bad for the west must be good for Russia.
And thus emboldened, Putin moved to annex the Crimea. Good for him, but now what? On the plus side Russia has now gained a peninsula with a very picturesque southern coast which is great to visit in summer (as far as Ukraine should be mourning a loss, that’s about as far as it goes). And they’ve gained a region filled with about two-thirds die-hard Russian loyalists and the rest who can’t stand them. Yes, all that Russia needs now is the addition of another region divided politically and ethnically which is going to be utterly dependent on Moscow for economic support. The Crimea is a popular tourist spot, and visitor numbers swelled following the Eurovision Song Contest in 2005 when the government lifted the visa requirements for EU visitors and removed them permanently shortly thereafter (one visitor who took advantage of this was me). Whether obtaining a Russian visa will be necessary to take a holiday in the Crimea from now on remains to be seen, but I suspect it is likely. Border controls between Ukraine and the now-Russian Crimea will further serve to limit tourist numbers, as will the slightest sign of civil unrest or security apparatus on the streets.
Given the importance of tourism to Crimea’s economy it will be interesting to see how the place fares this summer. Crimea’s other industry is agriculture, and given its location I would guess that the primary market for the products is the population centres of Ukraine rather than Russia. Slapping import restrictions on agricultural products from the Crimea is something the new government in Ukraine could do quite easily, and combined with the inevitable effect on tourism these latest developments will have, there could be tough times ahead for the Crimean population. This will lead to Russians asking (not for the first time) what the hell they’ve gone and done, and unrest amongst the local Ukrainians and Tatars which the Russians will no doubt deal with in a heavy-handed manner, making the situation even worse. As I said, incorporating another divided, restless, border region into the Russian Federation probably isn’t what it needs right now.
So having masterfully exploited a weakness in the Ukraine and the west for a short term gain, Russia might well now be asking what they’ve actually achieved once those waving the flags feel their arms getting tired and go home. The status of Russia’s Black Sea fleet is now assured, but given that it never came up for discussion in over two decades of post-Soviet independence, it is hard to see this as much of a positive. Nor is it hard to see that even with a fleet on the Black Sea, the Russian navy is still nicely locked in: with a NATO member controlling the Bosphorus, the base at Sevastopol isn’t the strategic location its made out to be.
Russia’s main problem is that they are less likely to see a Russia-friendly government in Ukraine again. The situation before saw Ukraine with a 17.3% Russian population; using numbers from Wikipedia, I have calculated the new Ukraine (i.e. minus Crimea) to be 15.3% ethnically Russian, with a major pro-Russian region now out of the picture. I don’t know if the remaining Russians have enough numbers or influence to ensure they are properly represented in Kiev, but its likely that things will get a lot harder for them, especially for those unfortunate enough to live in pro-western districts (they can look to the fate of Estonia’s Russians to see what awaits them). Whatever happens, I think it is likely that the Ukraine will take a much more pro-western and anti-Russian stance for the foreseeable future, the costs of which might outweigh any benefits Russia has gained from the annexation of the Crimea. I think it unlikely that Ukraine will be able to sort itself out and become a functioning country any time soon, but with potential EU membership there might come a time when the Russians in Crimea look somewhat enviously over the border at their Ukrainian neighbours. I haven’t actually met any to ask, but I wonder how many Russians living in the enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast would like the freedoms of work and travel that Lithuanians enjoy? Their economy seems to do pretty well due to its special ties with the EU, they might be asking what the benefits of remaining part of Russia are.
Another problem Putin now faces is that the US is already starting to put the squeeze on certain individuals to whom he is connected, and as the Streetwise Professor points out, things have the potential to get uncomfortable depending on how much the US and others are willing to push. The west appears to have finally figured out that the way to exert pressure on Russia is to start meddling in the financial affairs of prominent Russians, and the companies they control, overseas. These individuals are those on whom Putin is reliant for support, and hence cannot afford for them to be feeling too much pain as a result of his belligerence in international and regional affairs. Such targeted sanctions are clever in that they will barely affect ordinary Russians, who will not give two hoots that certain oligarchs are having their overseas loot frozen.
That said, I don’t expect the sanctions to be applied too strongly. For all Merkel’s tough talks, the Germans have conceded time and again to Russia on matters of principle with the aim of protecting their commercial ties, and I wouldn’t rely on Obama doing anything other than giving speeches off a teleprompter. So in the short term it looks as though the Crimea will become Russian, the Ukraine will become less so, and the Baltic States pray that little bit harder for a Republican president to win the next US elections. But in the medium term and longer terms, I don’t think we’ve heard the last of this.