The Man with the Stick

The maverick, authoritarian Russian President, Vladimir Putin signed the accession of Crimea into Russia on March 21, 2014. With it, the Crimean peninsula, and the port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s large Black Sea fleet, became Russian territory. It took Moscow less than a month after the ouster of President Victor Yanukovich to annex the Crimea.

With this, Russia expands its borders for the first time since 1945. Ostensibly, the Ukrainian crisis was bred by the desire of most Ukrainians to free themselves of Russian influence. The previous President was unabashedly pro-Russian, and held back the integration of Ukraine with Europe. Russia, often ill-understood, and a victim of international suspicion, has been knocking on the doors of Europe for centuries. It often claims that it gets less credit than in deserves for its service to Europe over hundreds of years. It was the Russian winter, the abandoning of Moscow after the entry of Napoleon in 1812, and his retreat that led to his defeat later at Waterloo. Europe had been saved. In 1942, Russia fought Nazi Germany to a stalemate, and again the terribly long, hard Russian winter became the invaders’ greatest adversary. Again, Europe was saved. Again, Europe responded by shutting Western Europe out of Russia’s sphere of influence.

On the face of it, the legal claim of Russia to Crimea remains the ‘will of the people,’ duly expressed in the form of a ‘referendum,’ held on March 16, which was called for by the elected Parliament of the Autonomous Region of Crimea. It apparently was a reaction to the passing of new laws that would demote the status of the Russian language in Crimea, itself a 96 per cent Russian-speaking region, something the Crimeans took offense at. Russia would send in troops, masked and unidentified, to ‘protect’ the Russian majority of the region from the ‘ultra-nationalist’ Ukrainians who had ‘taken over’ the country. Western protestations went nowhere, and China and India firmly sat on the side-lines. The Parliament of Crimea declared independence on March 11. The referendum on March 16 passed off peacefully, and most of Ukraine was left just to stand by and watch. Over 96 per cent of the people voted in favour of joining Russia, with a turnout of 83 per cent. Russia recognised the vote, calling it just as legitimate as that ‘held in Kosovo,’ in reference to the recognition of Kosovar independence from Serbia, which still remains a thorn in the side of Russia. The next day, Crimea declared independence, and formally asked the Russian federation to absorb it.

The Russian Duma (Parliament) would pass the law to annex Crimea, all but one out of 466 legislators would oppose it. In the upper house, not even a single vote was cast against the law, and the very next day, the President would sign it.

The Ukrainian flag was lowered over government buildings in Crimea.

The response was muted. United States and EU sanctions on President Putin’s advisors, and aides were useless. They were met by counter-sanctions, which went nowhere. In response, the rest of Ukraine would pass laws which would bring it closer to Europe.

Underlying the entire issue is a question worth pondering over. Beginning in the 19th century, during the linguistic-nationalist movements of Europe, which sought to unite people according to the language they spoke, leading up to the formation of the United Nations in 1945, the world’s powers had sought to keep the movement of international boundaries at a minimum. Barring major events, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1992, there was little redrawing of national boundaries, even during the decolonisation years of the 1950s and 1960s. The colonies remained as they were, the sovereignty passed on.

However, recently, beginning with the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, the secession of South Sudan, and now with the annexation of Crimea by Russia, world tolerance for the redrawing of international boundaries seems to be rising. Nigeria and Syria are, probably, going to witness a violent split, so is Afghanistan, post-2014. Scotland is, peacefully, heading towards a referendum in September, and the Catalan region of northern Spain is pushing for a similar democratic step towards secession.

At this time of geopolitical flux, is it right to assume that the world may not tolerate the change of sovereignty in Kashmir? Is it also right to assume that by accepting Russia’s position on the subject of Crimea, and not supporting sanctions, India would accept the results of a similar referendum on the status of Kashmir, if and when it is held?