By Paolo von Schirach
March 5, 2014
WASHINGTON – I recently wrote that Vladimir Putin, come what may, will not relinquish the Crimea. Nothing that has happened so far has made me change my mind. Putin may pay a price for this act of unprovoked aggression. However, if he plays his hand cleverly, may be there will be no price.
No annexation, but control
Putin does not have to proclaim the annexation of the Crimea. This would look bad. It is enough for him to demand that the Crimea (inhabited mostly by ethnic Russians) will be able to enjoy a higher degree of autonomy from the rest of Ukraine. The Russians, of course, will retain their naval base in the Crimea on the basis of existing agreements. For all practical purposes, the Russians will control the Crimea. But the peninsula will remain a part of Ukraine, at least formally.
Ukrainians willing to consider “additional autonomy”
A hint of this likely development comes from the provisional Ukrainian government in Kiev. Mr. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, acting Prime Minister while the country gets ready for new elections, indicated in a press conference that he is open to discussing a new status for Crimea. He said that Kiev is ready “to consider what kind of additional autonomy the Crimean Republic could get”. So, he has already conceded defeat. “Additional autonomy” will be in practice virtual independence. (Even before this crisis the Crimea enjoyed some degree of autonomy, in recognition of its history and different ethnic composition. Most of the people there are Russians. Indeed, Crimea used to be part of Russia proper until 1954, when it was “reassigned” to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev.)
So, the Crimea, for all practical purposes is gone. Putin prevails.
Nobody will fight for the Crimea
Ukrainians cannot win this one. Clearly, while America and even the EU are willing to shore up Ukraine proper, nobody is going to go to war with Russia for the Crimea, a region of Ukraine inhabited mostly by ethnic Russians.
In the end, as long as the virtual detachment of the Crimea from the rest of Ukraine is officially described as “greater autonomy” in the context of a “federation”, who can complain? Ukrainians are likely to agree, even though they will know exactly what this “additional autonomy” means: they lost the Crimea.
The Russians will express satisfaction with a new arrangement that guarantees the safety and welfare of their brethren in the Crimea.
The Russians win
The international community, with Washington in the lead, will also say that all is well, because Ukrainian sovereignty has not been breached, and Ukrainians got to decide a new arrangement on their own.
But, in the real world, everybody will know the truth. Putin’s thuggish action paid off. He gets away with a piece of Ukraine. It will be not be Russian in a technical, legal sense; but the whole world will know who is in command there.