Author: Eva Orossová (Institute of International Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague)
On 22nd of February Russia entered Crimea in response to the development of Ukrainian crisis. It did so in name of the protection of Russian people living on Crimea. The act happened on a military basis despite this kind of solution being against international law. Since then Russia denies negotiations and insists on the right of Crimean Russians to choose their own future which, at least for president Putin, means to become part of Russia. European and American politicians strongly oppose Putin’s approach to the Ukrainian crises and see his “help” as an occupation of Crimea. In the language of international law, occupation means an act of aggression and should therefore be punished. Europe and the US warned Russia in a diplomatic manner several times and they are still considering sanctions.
Russia’s behaviour could be seen as irrational. However, there might be something highly precious in Crimea which makes President Putin so adamant. In this essay I will try to find out what could be Putin’s motivation for keeping his unpopular position and if it is worth doing so.
Total population of Crimea is 2.3 million; 58% of them are ethnic Russians, only 24% Ukrainians and the rest 18% are Tatars. President Putin sent the troops to Crimea to protect the interests of the majority population of ethnic Russians who disagree with the recent development in Ukraine and wish to leave the state and become part of Russia instead. He justified the manoeuvre by an invitation letter in which Crimean government is explicitly asking for Russian military help. In the meantime Crimean parliament voted 79 to 81 MPs for leaving Ukraine. On Sunday 16th March all Crimean inhabitants had the chance to vote in a referendum and make final decision. The results of this referendum can be found here .
From the Russian point of view, all of the adopted measures served as international aid and the intervention of Russian troops should be therefore seen as a humanitarian force. However, such an explanation is from the European and American point of view absolutely irrelevant. Europe and the US perceive the Russian approach as a violation of international law and Ukrainian sovereignty. Ukrainian (pro-western) President Yatsenyuk pointed to the Crimean situation as illegitimate and as a violation of Ukraine’s constitution, as it states that any change to the borders must be approved by the whole country. And Ukraine, of course, opposes all the Russian help.
Unfortunately, Russia is not much interested in Ukraine’s opinion. It is deeply concerned about its own interests and intentions. First of them is of a historic nature. Russia has been the dominant power in Crimea for most of the past 200 years, since it annexed the region in 1783. In 1954 Crimea was transferred by Khrushchev to Ukraine. Some ethnic Russians see that as a historic wrongdoing. The protection of Russians living on Crimea in a time of political changes in Ukraine should therefore be seen as a symbolical act.
Now, let’s remain on the symbolical level for some more time. All who have watched the Ukrainian crisis from the beginning in November 2013 might have noticed that the atmosphere reminded bipolar international system of the Cold War. There are revolutionaries and dissatisfied Ukrainians heading for democratic regime, freedom and liberal economy endorsed by the West on the one side, and conservative Ukrainians with Russian roots insisting on strong partnership with Russian Federation supported by President Putin on the other side. Both sides accuse each other of unacceptable behaviour. The Western position is well-known. What about the Russian one? We can say that Putin feels deceived by the West. In February a compromise agreement between President Yanukovych and the opposition was negotiated. Less than 24 hours after Russia appeared to accept it, Mr Yanukovych was removed from power and a new acting president from the opposition was appointed. In this situation Putin acted like he would play the US notorious role on the international ground and started his “humanitarian” intervention to “protect” people from the “chaos”. This step might therefore be perceived as a warning to the US that it does not have a monopoly on unilateral use of power in favour of preventing uncomfortable development. Facing the prospect of recession, Mr Putin also appears to be returning to the days of 1999-2000, when “a small victorious war” in Chechnya led to a major rise in his approval ratings. Today, a victory in the Ukrainian crisis might enhance his legitimacy at home and stabilize the system he has been building for a while. It might, at least, intimidate his opponents and any potentially disloyal members of the elite.
Speaking about victories, no one may predict how far President Putin has decided to go. Annexation of Crimea might be just the first preparatory step for gaining the whole of Ukraine. There were reports that Russian troops were out in force in Zaporizhzhya province and Kharkiv province. In eastern Ukrainian cities Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk and Mykolaiv pro-Russian activists have already seized government buildings, hoisted the Russian flag and called for Russian assistance. What if they are the next to be “given help”?
By annexing Crimea Russia would gain precious gas fields in the Black Sea and Azov Sea. In this way, helping eastern Ukrainian regions would be even more lucrative because of huge mining activities and precious raw energy resources.
However, it is a question if Russian economy would really profit from gaining all these territories and resources. Russia’s economy is already in recession with a drop of investment, a rapid decline in consumer demand and a decrease in incomes. The Russian stock market is down more than 11%. The fall in the Rouble has pushed the Russian central bank into increasing rates from 5.5% to 7%. The estimates say Russian economy would not grow faster than 2% per year until 2016 even by the best conditions.
Crimean decision to join Russia will only worsen the economic instability. The administration of the joined region will need to be financed by Moscow and it will also be Russia’s task to ensure Crimean water and energy supplies – which means another financial burden. Europe and the US are considering economic and diplomatic sanctions which would make Crimea much more an economic nightmare than a gleaming victory to Russia. The European Union has already stopped the negotiations on an EU-Russia economic partnership. If more serious European sanctions were to be imposed, such as an embargo on Russia’s gas supply (by replacing it with Norwegian gas) which makes a third of all Europe’s gas supplies, then Russia would stand to lose some $100bn a year and face economic collapse, as the oil and gas revenues account for over half of Russian budget receipts. The sudden threat of worsening relations between Russia and the West has already shocked Russian markets in fact; $60bn was wiped off the value of Russian companies as worried international investors tried to figure out how the political climate was changing. And if Russian elite’s money abroad would be completely frozen, Putin would also lose the rest of their loyalty and face a personal downfall. And there will also be problems on the social level. The ethnic divisions on the Crimean peninsula are so deep that it is impossible to satisfy everyone with anything. It is highly probable, that the Ukrainians and Tatars living on Crimea would not give up and continue their fight against Russian imperialism.
Continuing Russian unilateralism will have political consequences. The West has decided not to tolerate the evident democratic deficit by the prepared referendum, Russian reluctance towards negotiations and Putin’s return to the Cold War rhetoric. It cannot allow Russian politics to become a precedent in international relations. This would enable every revisionist state to unilaterally annex regions where an ethnic minority of the same national roots is living. Such a custom would provoke China, for example, which could be interested in those territories of the Russian Far East that have a large Chinese migrant populations.
It is obvious that Russian, or more precisely Putin’s approach to Ukrainian crisis cannot be beneficial. All the symbolic value of Crimea, Russian inhabitants there and gas resources, do not balance the costs Russia would have to pay if continuing its unilateral policy. Someone could argue that such a country as Russia might be able to run a long-term one-sided policy and oppose the Western monopoly on international relations level. However, the current situation of Russian economy does not speak in favour of Russian power to do so. It would be much wiser of President Putin to reevaluate his possibilities and then reconsider Russia’s strategy in the Ukrainian crisis and maybe on the international ground as well. In this way, Crimea could serve as a precious experience and a starting point of defining Russia in the 21st century.
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