The ‘Crimea Question’ Anew

crimea sasse

There is a sense of déja vu surrounding the present separatist crisis in Crimea, for there was a vibrant Russian secessionist movement in the region in the early 1990s. Crimea was then an important case in the former Soviet Union where war was widely expected but did not materialize. The region exhibited many of the factors associated with violent conflict elsewhere – multi-ethnicity, historical antagonisms, a legacy of autonomy experiments, center-regional struggles, economic collapse, international politicking, and a Russian military presence. 

This book explains why, contrary to expectations at the time, conflict potential was defused in the 1990s and 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 multi-ethnicity 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, Russia under Yeltsin exercised restraint in Crimea in the wake of the first war in Chechnya. Fourth, Kyiv adopted a cautious approach and continued to negotiate with the Crimean leadership.

Two decades later the present crisis in Crimea is a direct consequence of three months of protests and the ouster of President Yanukovych.  Once again Crimea is high on the international agenda as a potential war zone. Events have escalated much faster and with greater external involvement than in the 1990s. Back then violence was limited to isolated clashes between Russians and Crimean Tatars, and Kyiv’s control over the region was only briefly in doubt in 1994. At no time did Russia or Russia-backed armed forces attempt to seize control. Russian President Putin has different priorities and policy approaches compared to Yeltsin. He has deliberately escalated the situation with the display of military strength in and around Crimea, and the Russian parliament’s authorization of the use of Russian troops in Ukraine.

Putin's actions are also aimed at ensuring that Ukraine preserves a political balance that gives a strong voice to the southern and eastern regions. Both Kyiv and Moscow understand the critical role of the Crimean Tatars in any political or military confrontation in the region. The key question now is whether Moscow and Kyiv can continue to control the diversity of actors in Crimea. Ultimately, both sides have an interest in regional stability.

The Ukrainian state is currently being put to its biggest test since independence. Hopefully, Crimea will remain a case that teaches us about conflict-prevention. The foundations for politically addressing the various dimensions of the ‘Crimea question’ are in place. This includes the possibility of redefining Crimea’s autonomy status within the constitutional parameters set by the Ukrainian and Crimean constitutions.

Gwendolyn Sasse
Professorial Fellow, Nuffield College, University of Oxford

Find The Crimea Question: Identity, Transition, and Conflict by Gwendolyn Sasse at HUP.

NPR's On Point. Post-Crimea Vote: The West Vs. Russia?
Guests: Guy Chazan, energy editor for the Financial Times; Gwendolyn Sasse, professor of politics and international relations at Oxford University; Michael McFaul, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia. Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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