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Russia and West arrive at a new understanding over Crimea that will resonate in Europe and Asia.
The speed with which Moscow formalised the annexation of Crimea, a province of Ukraine with a significant Russian majority, was as predictable as the tepid Western response. Crimea is too close to the Russian body and soul for Moscow to act otherwise. It is too remote for the West to be turned into a decisive political battlefield.
As President Vladimir Putin said in his speech to the Russian political elite on Tuesday, Moscow’s decision in 1954 to transfer the region from Russia to Ukraine was unjust and taken behind closed doors by then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Moscow was too weak to resist the conversion of a large Russian population in Crimea into a minority in Ukraine.
As the political chaos in Kiev last month threatened the rights of the Russians in Crimea, Putin moved decisively to gain control of the province and organised a referendum that saw people vote to join Moscow.
Despite their tall talk, America and Europe had no stomach to impose sanctions that would really hurt Russia. The measures they threatened or adopted did not deter Russia. In addition, Washington needs Moscow’s cooperation on a range of global issues, and Western Europe is deeply dependent on Russian energy supplies.
The prospect of a new Cold War in Europe, then, is vastly overstated. But there is no denying the new chill in the relations between Russia and the West. To be sure, Putin has left some room for a dialogue, by promising not to claim additional territories of Ukraine. A potential understanding would involve harmonising the interests of different ethnic groups in Ukraine and guarantees from the West that Kiev will not be absorbed into the NATO. Above all, European stability depends on a long overdue Western recognition that they have treated post-Soviet Russia with disdain and have not shown any sensitivity to its core national interests.
As Russia and the West struggle to define the terms of an enduring accommodation in the heart of Europe, Moscow’s annexation of Crimea could play out very differently in Asia. Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, locked in escalating maritime territorial disputes with a rising China, are deeply concerned at the inability of the US and the international system to stop a big power from snatching territories under the control of another. Crimea is a useful reminder to many Asian countries, including India, that there is no alternative to strong national defence capabilities in holding on to territories claimed by a great power.