WASHINGTON – Some commentators talk about the Crimea crisis using the old and rather stale analogy of a chess game in which the Russians –always strategic in their plots– carefully execute a “Gran Plan”. This is silly. The invasion of Crimea was a bold, opportunistic move. Vladimir Putin took advantage of a moment of chaos in Kiev, due to the sudden collapse of Viktor Yanukovych, Moscow’s ally.
Seize the opportunity
Facing a strategic defeat with the loss of political influence in Ukraine, Putin simply saw an opportunity to get at least a piece of the country that had just slipped through his fingers. And this move worked very well because the official excuse of the need to protect the poor Russians prisoners of the brutish Ukrainians could stand at least superficial scrutiny. Most of the Crimeans are Russians. Nobody could dispute that.
The strategy of the wolf
Still, all in all, this was not part of a carefully vetted strategy. This is the wolf that sees a weak, defenseless prey and pounces on it. This has nothing to do with chess. This is the Wild West and train robberies. This is opportunistic use of force to further one’s political objectives.
Timid Europe would do nothing
If there was any calculus, it had to do with Putin’s (correct) assessment (or was it just a gamble?) of Europe’s lack of appetite for any conflict with Russia. Sure enough, Russia will pay a price for this act of aggression. But it will be a small price. Meanwhile Putin enjoys a 70% approval rate at home. (Think of that, president Barack Obama: how about an invasion of Cuba to restore your sagging political fortunes at home?)
Annexation works well with home audience
Indeed, with the Crimea occupation-referendum-
And, in truth, we all know that he has a semi-legitimate point, at least in fact, if not in law. While pressured by Russian occupying forces and Moscow’s propaganda, it is clear to all that most people in the Crimea see themselves as Russians and believe (at least for the moment) that their conditions will improve under Russian rule. (Good luck to them).
Breaking all the rules
In all this, the Crimean crisis rests on an issue of form, rather than substance. Nobody can deny the facts. Until 1954 Crimea used to be Russian. Most of its inhabitants are ethnic Russians; and therefore it is not surprising that most of them would rather be Russian citizens.
That said, the way Russia went about achieving this “reunification” goal defies every basic norm of international law. You simply do not carve countries as you please, even though you may have (as in this case) a semi-legitimate claim.
One should follow the constitutions and the laws of the countries affected. If there are going to be changes of borders, there have to be negotiations. All parties involved should have the opportunity to have their views and positions taken into account.
But the Russians ignored process, protocol, international law and everything else. They seized an opportunity created by the sudden power vacuum in Kiev, and they did as they pleased. (Of course, the Russians, turning law-abiding on this– claim that they cannot negotiate with the provisional government in Kiev, because this government seized power through a coup. This is an illegitimate government that cannot speak for the Ukrainian people, let alone for the aggrieved Russians in Crimea).
The false Kosovo analogy
The (resourceful) Russians also say that the West is hypocritical about this crisis because Crimea is exactly the same as Kosovo in 1999. In the case of Kosovo –Putin says– the West attacked Serbia and carved a piece of its territory creating an independent state of Kosovo through brute force.
The Russians instead are far more civilized. They did not fire a single shot in Crimea. On the contrary, they allowed the expression of free will via a vote. Having seen that well over 90% of the people want to become part of Russia, Moscow simply recognized this fact and now welcomes them. What’s wrong with that?
This Kosovo analogy is clever and it may play well with the home audience in Russia. But it is completely false. The West intervened militarily against Serbia because Belgrade was actively suppressing a Kosovo movement seeking independence. In other words, the Kosovars were under threat. In fact they were killed by Serbians engaged in “ethnic cleansing”. Therefore there was ground for a Western humanitarian intervention. Besides, nobody sought the annexation of Kosovo.
In contrast, the Kiev provisional government declared that it was ready to negotiate additional autonomies to the already autonomous Crimea. In other words, the Russians in Crimea were not under any threat.
Crimea needed to be protected
But of course, this is not Moscow’s official narrative. According to Putin, just as the Kosovars had to be rescued, the hapless Russians in Crimea had to be protected against the imminent onslaught of the neo-Nazis descending from Kiev with the clear aim of killing the Russians in Crimea.
Crimea is gone
As I have been saying since the beginning of this crisis, Crimea is gone, for good. As to the price that Putin will have to pay in terms of political isolation and economic sanctions, I am not sure how significant it will be.
The European Union has enough problems within Europe’s borders. I doubt that it wants to be in an open-ended confrontation with a rather ruthless Russia.
America is several steps removed from the action. While Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry say all the right things about upholding international law, sovereignty, “consequences” for Putin’s nefarious actions and what not, America has no desire to escalate this crisis.
I suspect that, in the end, some face-saving formula will be devised. Putin already hinted at this. After having gobbled Crimea, he has already say that he has no further claims regarding Ukraine.
So, here is the deal. Russia will publicly and solemnly declare that it will not try to “liberate” the ethnic Russians in Eastern and Southern Ukraine. The West will not accept the annexation of Crimea by Russia, but it will do nothing about it. This formulation is not very elegant, but I suspect that this is what will happen.
In the end, I do not believe that Crimea is just the first step within a Russian carefully crafted strategic plan to reconstitute the old Soviet Union.
Russia will act, swiftly and ruthlessly, only when it will see an opening. The sudden collapse of the pro-Russian Yanukovych government in Kiev, while it spelled disaster regarding the goal of reintegrating Ukraine within Russia’s orbit, created a moment of chaos and therefore the opportunity and the excuse to seize Crimea.
And Putin did just that, to the applause of a nationalistic and rather primitive home audience that would rather have territorial annexations than political and economic freedom.
As for the Russians in Crimea, assuming a reformed and in the end more prosperous and free Ukraine, ten years from now they may have an attack of buyer’s remorse.