Last Wednesday, in a phone conversation with Mustafa Dzhemilev, a leader of the Muslim Tatar minority in the Crimea, Vladimir Putin raised a chilling possibility: According to Ukrainian media reports, he questioned the legality of Ukraine's secession from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Back then, the world also feared war and prolonged conflict between Russia and Ukraine. If the Russian president's current takeover of Ukraine's Crimea region succeeds, it may be followed by Russian efforts to seize other chunks of Ukraine—and beyond that, perhaps pieces of Moldova and the Baltic states too, which also house substantial numbers of ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking minorities.
The roots of today's crisis go back to the last days of the Soviet Union, whose demise Mr. Putin has lamented as the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Moscow has long cast an acquisitive eye on Ukraine—now the second-largest Slavic state, previously a vast part of the Soviet Union and always Russia's uneasy neighbor. The current Ukrainian crisis and Russia's occupation of the Crimea are directly linked to Moscow's project of reintegrating the space of the former Soviet Union into a comprehensive economic, political and military Eurasian Union.
The annexation of Crimea could be problematic for Russia in a number of important ways.
First, annexing Crimea would be a costly enterprise. The peninsula is not self-sustainable and heavily depends on Kiev to balance its budget. Crimea has no fresh water supplies and it does not generate its own electricity; in fact, it receives 90 percent of water, 80 percent of electricity, 60 percent of other primary goods and 70 percent of its money from Kiev. Building or creating these capacities in Crimea will put a huge strain on the Russian budget, and given the ongoing slide of the Russian currency due to calamities in Ukraine, the decline is likely to continue together with the fall of foreign direct investment into Russia. Crimea with its 2 million person population would become an economic drain on Russia even more than the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, whose populations totals some 250,000 and 45,000 respectively. In addition, economic problems would magnify due to reactions from Turkey and Europe.
Second, about 12 percent of Crimea's population is ethnically Tatar. They have already called for Turkish mediation and refuse to recognize the recent seizure of power in Crimea as legitimate. Annexation could lead to a rise in inter-communal violence and instability on the peninsula. Enraging Turkey and Europeans, on whose direct borders hostilities could be fought, will disrupt economic ties and relations that Moscow has been trying to improve over the last decade. The approval of Turkish and European governments to build the South Stream gas pipeline on the bottom of the Black Sea could be revoked, which will seriously undermine Gazprom's desire to maintain its monopoly on Caspian gas supplies to Europe.
Third, Russia's annexation of Crimea would set a dangerous precedent for its powerful neighbor – China – to do the same in the Far East. By some estimates, there are up to 2 million legal and illegal Chinese immigrants that live in the Russia's Far East, which borders densely populated Chinese Northern territories. For authorities in Beijing, the population problem is a dire issue and given that these territories historically belonged to China, Beijing might use logic similar to what is taking place in Crimea to reclaim its lands in the future. Moreover, the Crimean precedent could strengthen Japanese claims over the Russian-controlled Kuril Islands.
The annexation of Crimea may also cause further deterioration of Russia's relations with its post-Soviet neighbors. Moscow's aggressive action may provoke serious security concerns within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region, where Russia still enjoys geopolitical domination. Specifically, the annexation may be perceived as extremely threatening by neighboring and even somewhat friendly states, such as Belarus and Kazakhstan, where a huge Russian-speaking population resides. The Russians outside of the borders of the Russian Federation may be perceived as a "fifth column," and, therefore, be exposed to discriminating policies or even persecutions. Domestically, this may provoke waves of immigration into Russia, while, regionally, it may put an end to Moscow's reintegration projects such as the Custom Union. Ukraine, on the other hand, might be pushed to protect its security by seeking NATO's membership and maybe even compelled to consider moving towards re-creating its nuclear weapons program.
Read the full post by political scientists Helena Yakovlev-Golani and Nadiya Kravets, post-doctoral scholars at the University of Toronto and Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University, respectively at the Washington Post's Blog "The Monkey Cage".
Russia may be planning to take over Crimea, but several factors make it harder to believe that Russia will be able to establish control and to effectively annex Crimea as it did with South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria. For one, the Ukrainian side so far has not made any moves that Russia can credibly present as a provocation that necessitates armed response by the Russian side to "protect" its military or its citizens, as was the case in Georgia in 2008. The new Ukrainian government leaders have called for calm, the far right Right Sector said it will not be sending its men to Crimea, and in a conciliatory gesture to Russian-speakers, acting president Turchynov today vetoed the law the Ukrainian parliament adopted several days earlier repealing the 2012 law elevating the status of the Russian language. With the Security Council in session to discuss events in Crimea and Western leaders urging restraint and warning Russia that violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity are unacceptable, there is hope that a diplomatic solution to the crisis could be found.
"To strengthen claims on Crimea, Russia and Ukraine woo Crimean Tatars" by Oxana Shevel, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University and an Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.
Interview with Oxana Shevel, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University and an Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.
Who are the Crimean Tatars? Interview with Oxana Shevel, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University and an Associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.
"Ukrainian smears and stereotypes" by Anne Applebaum.
Anne Applebaum is currently working with HURI on a book manuscript focusing on the Holodomor.
NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook: “Ukraine Splits Over East-West Economic Rivalry” featuring Serhii Plokhii, Mykhailo S. Hrushevs'kyi Professor of Ukrainian History, Department of History, Harvard University; Director, Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University.
NPR’s Here and Now with Robin Young: “Tolerasty versus Sovok: Ukraine’s Battle over Values” featuring Oleh Kostyuba, on-line editor of Krytyka and Harvard PhD candidate in Ukrainian literature in the department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.
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