Ukraine, Crimea and the Putin gambit

by George Hatjoullis

Events in Ukraine have taken a turn for the worse as conflict in eastern towns has resulted in deaths and injuries. This has allowed Russia to make a statement about protecting its citizens in these provinces. Prima facie this is a poorly veiled threat to invade the eastern provinces with a view to annexation, an alarming development. Russia denies any such immediate intent but the threat is clear. The implied threat has merely aggravated fears among all former soviet republics that border Russia and have large ethnic Russian populations. Could they be next?

Only Putin knows his true objective. However, it is conceivable that it is primarily Crimea. The west acknowledges that Russia has legitimate interest in Crimea. However, it objects to the de facto annexation which it regards as illegal and sets an unfortunate precedent (Greek-Cypriots might argue the precedent was set in July 1974). The referendum is Russia’s attempt to legitimise the annexation but as the referendum is also deemed illegal this does not achieve anything in so far as far as acquiescence by the west is the objective. The west clearly has in mind protection of Russian interests in the Crimea through enhanced autonomy for the region but remaining within the Ukraine. Russia is predictably not satisfied with anything less than complete autonomy and affiliation to Russia, and preferably annexation. So what now?

The referendum will take place tomorrow and, barring a very surprising outcome, will conclude that Crimea should join the Russian federation. The act of union is likely to be swift. This is going to create real fear among those communities living in Crimea and that do not wish to join the Russian federation. Further civil unrest is almost inevitable and unfortunately further casualties. Tensions in the eastern provinces will also most likely escalate and talk of Russian invasion along with it. Russian troop movements along the border will validate these concerns. So what is Putin’s gambit?

Nothing is ever what it seems and it is plausible that all Putin actually wants is Crimea. By seemingly extending the threat beyond Crimea he creates a bargaining position. Acquiesce in the annexation of Crimea or else deal with escalation. If the gambit is a success then Ukraine and the west might conclude that containing the crisis to annexation of Crimea is a result. There may need to be some international agreement protecting the rights of ethnic Russians within an independent Ukraine and there may be some assisted but voluntary population movements. The threat of worse may be designed to make this not seem such a bad outcome. For the west and Ukraine the key issue is that Crimea does not become prelude to an expansionist Russian federation. If both are persuaded that it stops with Crimea then they might just come to an accommodation. In 1974 Turkey stopped at the Attila Line. If it had taken the whole island, which it could have done, the international community might have had to respond differently. Just a thought.

Postscript 17/03/14

The Crimea referendum has voted overwhelmingly in favour of union with Russia. The West and Ukraine regard the whole process as illegal. The Russian FM have issued a statement favouring Russian as the second official language in Ukraine and offering to co-operate to form a mechanism to resolve the crisis in Ukraine. Why am I not surprised.