Crimea and Punishment

BY MAHIR ALI
NATO’s warning last Sunday that Russian troops were massing on Ukraine’s eastern border was followed by Kiev’s announcement of impending conflict, even as it ordered the withdrawal of its forces from freshly annexed Crimea. The leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) meanwhile gathered in The Hague to thrash out a response.
The summit’s nomenclature offers a clue that something’s amiss. G7 is a throwback to the days before Russia was deemed worthy of a seat at the table. Then it became G7+1 before evolving into G8. Now it’s effectively G8-1, and the minus one happens to hold the group’s rotating presidency, but the summit it expected to host in Sochi in June has now been called off.
It would probably be an understatement to say that uncertainty clouds the future of this and other international processes involving Moscow. Some commentators are suggesting that the post-Cold War era effectively ground to a halt this month.
That may well turn out to be the case, although alternative scenarios should not be ruled out. A great deal hinges on Russian and Western behaviour in the days and weeks ahead.
Vladimir Putin has categorically denied the intention of Russian military intervention in any other part of Ukraine. Like most politicians, he doesn’t always stick to his word. But in this instance he would be well-advised to strictly abide by that promise.
The West, reeling from criticism of its initially weak response – economic sanctions against individuals – may be tempted to flex its muscles. Depending on the specifics, that too could backfire.
The noise factor has been high in some European Union capitals as well as on Capitol Hill, but the urge to make Putin repent and retreat has been tempered by the knowledge that any economic pain inflicted on Russia as a whole would bounce back and hurt Europe.
Thankfully, not even the most virulent Russophobes are clamouring for any sort of direct military action. It would be judicious, however, for NATO to maintain a relatively low profile, given that from Moscow’s vantage point it is clearly part of the problem.
Although Putin deems Russia’s annexation of Crimea to have been based entirely on legal procedures, it has not explicitly been endorsed even by his closest allies in the region. There can be little doubt, though, that it has proved overwhelmingly popular within Russia.
A reasonably strong case could conceivably have been made for Crimea reverting to Russian control 60 years after Nikita Khrushchev made a gift of it to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic – but, ideally, on the basis of a consensual rather than a unilateral process.
Doubts have inevitably been expressed about the referendum, even though objective observers are generally willing to concede that the idea of a reunion with Russia enjoyed majority support in Crimea.
There’s nonetheless something terribly disconcerting about the notion of Putin being able to reclaim territory on a whim, given that there are ethnic Russian enclaves across most former constituent republics of the Soviet Union – and even the odd territory actually eager for some sort of linkage, such as Transnistria, which broke away from Moldova in 1992.
Putin’s remark some years ago that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the 20th century’s biggest geo-political catastrophe is often cited as evidence of his longing to revive a comparable structure, but there is little evidence that he views this as a realistic proposition. Nor is his nostalgia for the USSR an aberration – a Gallup poll last December across 11 former Soviet republics found 51pc of respondents thought the break-up of the union was more harmful than beneficial to their country.
But while there is little risk of the Soviet Union’s resurrection, there can be little question that poor handling by almost everyone concerned has exacerbated the Ukrainian crisis. The far-right components of the westward-leaning interim government in Kiev ought to have given the EU pause for thought, even if Moscow’s dismissal of it as a neo-Nazi construct is neither entirely accurate nor particularly helpful, given the clamour it has catalysed among eastern Ukrainians who rely on Russian TV for their information (and propaganda).
It is, unfortunately, not too hard to envisage an escalation, with dangerously unpredictable consequences. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail, further provocations will be avoided, Ukraine as it now stands will remain intact, the tendency to ignore or underplay Russia’s geopolitical interests will be abandoned.
The alternatives are too awful to contemplate — not least in light of the fact that 100 years ago a series of unfortunate, but relatively minor, events resulted in Europe sleepwalking into a catastrophic frenzy of self-destruction.
-by arrangement with dawn.com