Putin's calculations on Crimea
By Roman Sohn
The annexation of Crimea was a fait accompli in late February when Russian forces seized control of the peninsula, before anybody in Crimea cast a vote in the "referendum," before Russian leader Vladimir Putin signed anything in Moscow.
By sending troops on 15 March to seize a gas distribution plant on the Ukrainian mainland, he showed he is prepared to escalate.
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By letting his men shoot dead a Ukrainian officer in Simferopol on 18 March, he showed he is ready for the escalation to involve bloodshed.
When EU countries and the US imposed sanctions on some of his inner circle, it changed nothing.
As we heard in Putin’s big speech in Moscow on 18 March, this is about ideology: It’s about his place in Russian history as a gatherer of lands and protector of Russian people.
In this new paradigm, getting on a Western blacklist is a badge of loyalty. Advising Putin to back down is an act of treason.
It seems that some ordinary Russian people are fascinated by the Soviet dramaturgy. Putin’s attempt to turn back the wheel of time has an audience at home. The red and gold Soviet flags we have seen at pro-Russian rallies in Crimea, or in the Ukrainian cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Lugansk, are his chosen props.
This relaunch of Russia has clearly been prepared for a long time.
But, none of this means that Putin’s plan will develop the way he expects. In fact, it is fair to ask whether he has miscalculated on many levels.
First, in his choice of partners in Crimea.
Serhiy Aksionov, the man put in power by Russia’s overnight coup, is a political nobody (his party got 4 percent in the last regional vote) and a petty criminal. He is well-known on the peninsula as a former gang member nicknamed “Goblin”.
He is the wrong man for the job of imposing Russian rule on 2 million people, hundreds of thousands of whom, and especially the Crimean Tatars, reject it out of hand.
Putin’s previous man in Ukraine, former President Viktor Yanukovych, was also a petty criminal. His vulgar thievery and his technical incompetence, in the way he ran the country and in the way he tried to put down the Maidan, led to chaos despite the resources mustered by the Kremlin on his behalf.
Mismanagement of Crimea could easily prompt partisan warfare by pro- and anti-Russian groups. Russia might have just imported a decades-long conflict.
Theatre of absurd
Putin also mishandled his theatre of the absurd - the Crimean “referendum”.
The vote is important because it lies at the heart of Russia's attempt to legitimise its actions.
But who in the civilised world can take seriously a referendum which offered two choices, both of which were the same: Do you want to split from Ukraine and become, de jure, part of Russia, or do you want to split and become, de facto, part of Russia?
Who can take seriously a vote conducted amid kidnappings and torture of civil society activists, attacks on journalists, masked men with machine guns forcing people to vote even if they wanted to abstain?
Who will believe in a vote with no credible outside observers, a vote in which thousands of Russian nationals came by bus to cast fake ballots?
Putin also invoked the UN principle of the right of “all peoples” to “self determination”. But his appeal makes no sense because there is no such thing as the “Crimean people”.
The Russian-majority Crimea was never an independent nation with its own identity. In early Soviet times, it was an administrative region of the USSR. In 1954, it became a region of Ukraine not by use of force but by the stroke of a pen.
The Russian majority in Crimea has never been recognised as constituting the “Crimean people”.
In fact, the only genuinely native Crimeans are the Tatars, and, ironically, they are its fiercest opponents of Russian rule.
Two million of them used to live there. Three hundred thousand live there today. The only reason why ethnic Russians are in a majority is Stalinist ethnic cleansing and genocide: Stalin forcefully resettled almost all the Tatars to Central Asia and more than 100,000 of them died in the process. It was the newly independent Ukraine which let them come home over the past 24 years.
Small wonder that on 15 March the supreme council of Crimean Tatars adopted a text recognising Ukraine’s territorial integrity within existing borders.
Crimea aside, Putin equally miscalculated the situation in east and south Ukraine.
Or rather, it was miscalculated for him: The leaders of pro-Russian groups in Ukraine have been telling Moscow that Ukrainian society is ready to fragment not because this is true, but because they want the Kremlin to keep paying them.
Soviet nostalgia speaks to a tiny minority of marginal groups on the Ukrainian mainland.
This is why pro-Russian fifth columnists need to be fed and watered from outside. This is why Putin had to get thousands of Russian nationals to travel to protests in Ukraine: His paid agitators were already in place, but local crowds were too small to fill the camera lens.
Meanwhile, can Putin really count on his allies?
Belarus has let Russian tanks take up positions on Ukraine’s northern border, just three hours by road from Kiev, while Armenia and Kazakhstan have recognised the result of the Crimea referendum.
Cost of protection
On the one hand, Putin’s actions in Syria, and now Ukraine, send a positive message to fellow autocrats: If your people rise up against you, no matter how many you kill, I will protect you. Yanukovych might not be in power, but reports say he is living in a $52 million mansion in Russia.
Putin's actions also send another message, however: If you fail me, or if you cross me, I will do anything to get my way.
Thanks to Stalin, almost all the former Soviet countries contain ethnic Russian minorities which could be used as a pretext for Crimea-type interventions.
If you look closely at the wording of Armenia and Kazakhstan’s statements, they are minimalist in their support. Kazakhstan even calls for the Ukraine crisis to be settled by diplomatic means at the UN. At the other end of the spectrum, Kyrgyzstan has criticised Russia. Belarus, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have reacted with a silence which speaks volumes.
In the six years since the Georgia war in 2008, none of Putin’s former Soviet allies have joined him in recognising the independence of Georgia's Russian-occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions.
There are also signs that Putin has miscalculated his own people.
Modern Russian nationalism is a mystery to many outside observers.
It testifies to the lasting power of national humiliation. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the myth of Russia’s greatness collapsed also, leaving behind a vacuum, a longing.
Even this post-totalitarian neurosis has its limits, however.
Fifty thousand people protested in Moscow and in other Russian cities against Putin’s actions on 15 March - by Russian standards, this is not a seed of discontent, this is a green bud.
Putin might mock EU and US sanctions. But they give credence to what the Russian opposition has been trying to say for years: there is no genuine ideology in the Kremlin, just larceny. The latest US blacklist says it in black and white. In justifying its designation of one of the founders of Russian oil trading firm Gunvor, it noted: “Putin has investments in Gunvor and may have access to Gunvor funds.”
If Russian pride is a pillar of Putin’s support, it can also be his downfall.
How will the Russian businessmen, or tourists, feel when they go abroad and find themselves pointed at and whispered about? “There go the barbarians,” they will say. How long before the new tsar begins to look more like the late Slobodan Milosevic, or Muammar Gaddafi?
But amid all this, the one, crucial, area where Putin’s calculations do seem to add up is the reaction of the West.
The EU and US blacklists are more painful than Putin admits: the US names are more senior, but if your name is on a US list, few EU banks will touch you with a bargepole. The EU’s part-signature of the association treaty with Ukraine is a strong gesture of support.
But this is not an adequate reaction to the gravity of the situation.
Crimea as test case
The annexation of Crimea is nothing less than a test of post-WWII global governance.
Here we have a UN Security Council veto power and a legal guarantor of Ukraine’s territorial integrity (under the 1954 Budapest memorandum) dismembering a friendly, neighbouring state in the full glare of 21st century 24-hour media.
What we are witnessing could be the end of the world of military restraint on the basis of international treaty law, the beginning of a new era of military conflict between advanced countries.
This is where appeasement of Putin by the rich and safe Western nations has brought us.
Ever since Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, Putin has tried to destabilise its pro-Western governments. France and Germany were too busy doing business with Russia to heed calls by former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko for closer ties.
When Yanukovych came to power, Brussels and Moscow were equally happy to have a Ukrainian leader who did nothing for EU membership. Ukrainians tolerated him in the hope that a Russian speaker from the east would sign the association agreement for the sake of national unity.
We know how all that ended.
Now that he is gone, at great cost, Ukrainians hope the legal guarantors of their security under the Budapest accord - the US and the UK, but also China and France - will live up to their commitment. They are hoping the EU will open its doors.
That the Budapest guarantors have not already triggered far-reaching economic sanctions is shocking.
That France is still considering to deliver advanced naval weapons systems to Russia is surreal.
A decision by the UN General Assembly to send peacekeeping forces to Crimea might salvage the guarantors' credibility.
Meanwhile, the EU decision to sign part of the association treaty now and the rest God knows when, while saying nothing on accession, risks alienating support.
When the European Parliament backs a resolution on Ukraine’s EU membership, but EU countries don't, what is this if not doublespeak? If pro-EU politicians in Ukraine fail to deliver because some EU governments are too cozy with Russia, who will the 46 million Ukrainian people be left to trust?
Europe is playing with fire.
Nationalist radicals in Ukraine have already started to exploit the indecisiveness of the EU to advance their anti-EU and anti-Russian agenda.
A radicalisation of Ukraine's political scene might well lead to the militarisation of the country, to an armed conflict with Russia over Crimea, and, as a future step, to a renewal of Ukraine’s nuclear weapons capability.
The writer is an activist and columnist in Ukraine, who contributes to Ukrainska Pravda, an independent news agency