By Gwendolyn Sasse. The Crimea Question focuses on a previous period of potential conflict in Crimea in the mid-1990s rather than today, but it provides a basis for understanding current events, in particular the complex historical legacies, cultural identities, and political claims tied to the region.
The incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation in March 2014, masterminded by Moscow in the aftermath of three months of protests in Ukraine, and the ouster of President Yanukovych and the establishment of an interim government in Kyiv give the newly published edition of my book The Crimea Question an unusual topicality. The book focuses on a previous period of potential conflict in Crimea in the mid-1990s rather than today, but it provides a basis for understanding current events, in particular the complex historical legacies, cultural identities, and political claims tied to the region.
In the 1990s Crimea was an important case in the former Soviet Union where war was widely expected—both inside the region and in the West—but did not materialize. The region exhibited many of the factors associated with violent conflict elsewhere: multiethnicity, historical antagonisms, a legacy of autonomy experiments, center-regional struggles, economic collapse, international politicking, and a Russian military presence.
Amid the current Cold War rhetoric and posturing it is even more important to remember that in the 1990s a multidimensional conflict situation was defused successfully in Crimea without violence and redrawing of borders. The contrast between then and now throws the lessons from the first post-Soviet conflict over Crimea into even sharper relief. It was a political process of bargaining, conducted by and with the commitment of the key players in Crimea, Kyiv, and Moscow, that defused the secession crisis of the 1990s. It created a political arrangement for Crimea that was anchored in the national and regional constitutions as well as in international agreements about the Black Sea Fleet. This commitment needed to be actively built and maintained. In the absence of its continuous and careful reinforcement, the events of February and March 2014 demonstrate that such arrangements can be overturned surprisingly quickly by an unforeseen sequence of events and the political opportunities they present. Russia's actions have demonstrated the fragility of so-called international legal norms and the potentially temporary nature of political arrangements that successfully manage conflict potential in one period but not in another.
The peninsula is of geostrategic importance due to its location on the Black Sea and because it hosts Russia's major Black Sea naval base in Sevastopol. Crimea is Ukraine's region with the highest concentration of ethnic Russians: 58.5 percent in the 2001 census, compared to 24.4 percent Ukrainians and 12.1 percent Crimean Tatars (about 250,000). The region has a history of fractious multiethnicity, which includes extreme experiences such as the deportation of an entire people—the Crimean Tatars—under Stalin. Their mass return to the region in the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods has added a volatile dimension to Russian and Ukrainian disputes about "ownership" of Crimea. The region has had several historical experiments with autonomy which have contributed to a sense of territorial distinctiveness and political entitlement. The most controversial aspect of the "Crimea question" is that the territory was removed from the jurisdiction of the RSFSR and placed within the Ukrainian SSR by a Soviet administrative transfer under Khrushchev in 1954. This book provides the most detailed archival research and analysis to date on the transfer of Crimea. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought all of these political issues to the fore, accompanied by an economic slump which fed into popular tensions and discontent. These characteristics created a widespread image of Crimea as a "fateful peninsula" (Guardian, 25 May 1994) that was prone to conflict. This idea of looming conflict permeated the Western media and the discussions of policymakers and academics in the early to mid-1990s. In July 1993, the Economist dramatically warned of a "long-running, acrimonious, possibly bloody and conceivably nuclear, dispute over Crimea." This scenario did not materialize, and Crimea in the 1990s turned into a critical case of post-Soviet conflict prevention.
This book explains how, contrary to expectations, Crimea became a case of "non-conflict." It argues that the primary reason was a drawn-out constitutional bargaining process centered on discussions about regional autonomy. This provided enough incentives to keep all the key actors engaged in finding political solutions. The outcome was a politically weak but constitutionally embedded autonomy status. The institution-making process,rather than the final institutional outcome, was significant for conflict prevention. Four other factors contributed to the peaceful outcome of the Crimean crisis in the 1990s. First, Crimea's multiethnicity was itself a moderating factor. Overlapping and blurred identities between Russians and Ukrainians in the region and the presence of a sizeable and vocal Crimean Tatar minority provided an important check on Russian separatism. Second, the Crimean Russian movement was internally divided and became more so over time. Third, Yeltsin exercised restraint in Crimea in the wake of the quagmire of the first Russian-Chechen war. Fourth, Kyiv adopted a non-conflictual, cautious approach—with regard to the region's status, its Russian language outlook and the Crimean Tatar settlements—and continued to negotiate with the Crimean leadership. Two decades later, events have escalated much faster and with greater external involvement than in the 1990s. Russian President Putin has different priorities and policy approaches compared to his predecessor Yeltsin. He deliberately escalated the situation with a display of military strength in and around Crimea and the Russian parliament's authorization of the use of Russian troops in Ukraine. Rather than negotiate, Putin speedily imposed a regional referendum on joining the Russia, and the swift incorporation of Crimea and Sevastopol into the Russian Federation.
Drawing on archival research, extended periods of fieldwork, a large number of elite interviews, and detailed process-tracing, this book demonstrates that a single case can provide a useful insight or corrective within comparative politics. The study of ethnoterritorial conflicts is characterized by an obvious selection bias—a focus on violent conflicts. Our understanding of conflicts suffers from this bias: it draws lessons and comparisons from the experience of violence, while the dynamics of managing and, most importantly, the defusing of conflict potential, remain underexplored. The study of conflict resolution is focused on institutional design issues. The mainstream assumption is that the uncertainties and security dilemmas cemented by conflict need to be tackled once and for all through fixing the institutional parameters as a condition for stable expectations and interactions. In reality, however, an element of institutional flexibility over time seems to be essential, despite its inherent risk under conditions of wider political instability. Translated into policy advice, this entails a move beyond the prescription of a concept such as autonomy or a particular institutional design that attempts to settle the conflict issues once and for all. Instead, the efforts should concentrate on creating and maintaining a flexible space for an ongoing engagement of the key actors based on an actively maintained balance between sufficient incentives and constraints on their behavior.
The Ukrainian state is currently being put to its biggest test since independence. A return of Crimea to the Ukrainian state is unlikely in the foreseeable future. But the lessons from the mid-1990s remain relevant, with regard both to Ukraine's ongoing attempts to find a new institutional mechanism to balance its regional diversity, and to other cases of potential or ongoing conflict beyond Ukraine.
Professorial Fellow, Nuffield College, University of Oxford