Crisis in Crimea

There is no alternative to Moscow and the West talking before the situation worsens.

Published: March 4, 2014 12:50:55 am

There is no alternative to Moscow and the West talking before the situation worsens.

Without a shot being fired, the Crimean republic in Ukraine is de facto under Russian military control. With Russian President Vladimir Putin acquiring parliamentary sanction to invade Ukraine, and with Ukraine mobilising in response, Europe’s biggest military crisis since the Yugoslav wars is unfolding on the peninsula. Moscow has vowed to keep its boots on the ground to “protect” Russian citizens (including ethnic Russians) and interests.

In other words, Putin is not going to make his peace with the ouster of his protégé, Viktor Yanukovych, from the Ukrainian presidency. The lack of leadership from the interim government makes it difficult for Kiev to deal with what it calls an act of war.

The Crimean danger speaks less of the peninsula’s centuries-long history of being the casus belli between big powers than of the region’s geostrategic significance for modern Russia. After the Soviet break-up, the Russian navy kept its Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol and the Crimea persisted as Russians’ favourite holiday destination. In keeping with his assertiveness in Russia’s “own backyard”, Putin would be loath to let go of this jewel in Czarist Russia’s crown. Moreover, Russia’s interests in its near abroad are much larger than those of the US and EU in Ukraine. The Ukrainian economy is in dire straits.

Moscow is unlikely to honour its $15 billion bailout agreed with Yanukovych. So the IMF will have to ensure Kiev gets around $25-30 billion urgently. Militarily, Ukraine is no match for Russia.

The West’s options are limited. Nato’s inability to respond beyond words of condemnation during Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008 may have convinced Moscow that if it annexed the Crimea now, little would actually be done to stop it. The threat of economic sanctions is the best tool, but given how intricately Russia’s economy is tied to the EU’s — from Russian gas to its oligarchs’ billions in European banks — Moscow fears little on this count too.

Therefore, Russia and the West must choose to talk and work out a formula that preserves Ukraine’s sovereignty and unity, while guaranteeing the rights of ethnic Russians and Russian citizens in eastern and southern Ukraine.

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