The breakneck speed and complete unexpectedness of the developments around Ukraine and Crimea make it very difficult to analyse the situation in a detached and impartial manner. The spirits are high on all sides, and emotions overwhelm the weak voices of reason, which is only natural, if unfortunate, in a critical situation.
Crimea, a peninsula jutting into the northern part of the Black Sea, was conquered by Russians from the Ottoman Empire in the late 18th century, during the reign of Catherine the Great. It remained a part of Russia (as one of the Soviet republics) until 1954, when, under Nikita Khrushchev, it was transferred from Russia to Ukraine. The gesture was seen as largely symbolic (marking the 300th anniversary of the Russian-Ukrainian union). It could have had certain sentimental value for Khrushchev, a native of Ukraine, and it made certain logistical sense, since Crimea does not share a land border with Russia. Sixty years ago, no-one could have dreamed of the break-up of the Soviet Union, and people from all over the vast country continued to flock to Crimea, one of the few Soviet resorts on a warm sea.
And yet, the Soviet Union did break up – and reasonably peacefully at that, compared to the break-ups of many other former empires. To be sure, certain pockets of tension and territorial claims have sprung up – Nagorno-Karabakh, contested between Armenia and Azerbaijan; Transistria, a predominantly Russian enclave in Moldova; Abkhazia and South Ossetia, claimed by Georgia but forcibly converted into breakaway quasi-states after the Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008. Crimea was another contentious point – seemingly less active, but smouldering beneath the surface.
The majority of Crimeans are Russian speakers with strong leanings towards Russia. Sevastopol, one of the largest cities on the peninsula, is the home base of Russia’s Black Sea fleet and universally considered to be ‘the city of Russian military glory’. Most Crimeans were unhappy with the central government in Kiev, which was stripping the region of self-governance and sending increasingly corrupt officials to work in the local bodies of authority. The Crimeans especially resented the policy of cultural and linguistic Ukrainization, even though such attempts on the part of central authorities were half-hearted, inconsistent and ultimately doomed to fail in the Russian-speaking region. Add to the complexity the issue of Crimean Tatars, an indigenous nation expelled from the peninsula by Stalin after World War Two for their alleged collaboration with Hitler: the independent Ukrainian government encouraged their repatriation to Crimea, another source of tension and split allegiances.
While Russia was trying to lure Ukraine back into its fold, at least economically, and seemed to have successfully persuaded President Viktor Yanukovich to drop the association with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia, the rally against this sudden change of heart snowballed into mass public protests, which soon turned violent, leaving over 100 people dead on both sides; in the aftermath of the disaster, Yanukovich fled, leaving a vacuum of authority and general confusion in his wake. Apparently Russian President Vladimir Putin seized the chance, prompting pro-Russian forces and the Black Sea fleet service personnel to take control over Crimea, and the self-proclaimed local Parliament to announce an improvised referendum, which was organized within mere days and conducted without any credible international supervision. The landslide results (about 97 per cent voting in favour of joining Russia) should not be taken too seriously, but it is worth keeping in mind that a fair referendum would have probably yielded the same overall result, though not so overwhelmingly. It is also worth noting that most Crimean Tatars boycotted the vote.
After this, again with characteristic speed, Putin addressed the nation with a speech replete with Cold War rhetoric and multiple grievances about the West’s ‘double standards’ (the Kosovo precedent seemed to have left an especially painful mark). The accession of Crimea into the Russian Federation was then whooshed through both chambers of the parliament and signed by the president. Neither Ukraine nor anyone in the West recognized this move; even Russia’s closest allies in the former Soviet Union, such as Belarus, refrained from acknowledging Crimea as part of Russia, at least de jure.
Against the background of this expansion and in the face of Western sanctions, Putin’s ratings in Russia were said to have soared. It is hard to say whether this is indicative of any reality now or in the near future, since the two years of Putin’s third term (fourth, if we count Dmitry Medvedev’s interregnum) have brought the most brutal onslaughts on free speech, free press, free opinion and independent polling since the 1990s. While peaceful protesters are now routinely being slapped with hefty fines or put behind bars (so far, briefly) by the hundreds, it is remarkable that dozens of thousands made it to the streets of Moscow for an anti-war march.
What can the West do? So far, the sanctions against Russia have been largely symbolic, but the problem with them is that any discontinuation of ties with the West might play into Putin’s hands, who would lash out at the few liberal-minded people still remaining in Russia and paint them as scapegoats – with all the strings of propaganda in his hands, it would be a no-brainer. Dealing with Putin while keeping open the door for the ‘normal Russia’ to emerge is going to be an excruciatingly difficult balancing act, both for the international community and within the country.