After what was possibly the most efficient take-over in history, the Crimea is once again part of Russia. America is busy muttering under its breath and the Baltic countries are quaking in their boots, but is there anything the West can actually do about it? Or are we doomed to live in a world where Putin can out-maneuverer the West like Garry Kasparov* facing down a novice?
As Mark Twain (maybe) once said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And nowhere is this historical poetry more apparent then when a nation takes it upon themselves to declare that, yes, they would very much like to exercise their self-determination, thanks for asking. The pattern of behaviour which follows is as depressing as it is predictable. In the red corner of the ring will be our plucky, newly-autonomous, nation, supported by a rag-tag bunch of interested parties, all of whom are now loudly hailing the right of self-determination as the most virtuous principle of international law. These guys will spend a good portion of their time pointing out various lines of the UN Charter and name-shaming all who oppose them as fascists. Meanwhile, in the blue corner of the ring, their opponents will bluster that we’re not gonna get anywhere if we don’t have some kind of order, goddamnnit, and that’s not going to happen if we let every Tom, Dick and Harry go around forming nation-states all of the time. This circus happens every time that somebody, somewhere, declares autonomy from another state, but we should not let ourselves be fooled by the facade. Because although countries love to throw around terms such as ‘self-determination’ or ‘territorial integrity’, more often than not they use these often conflicting principles to hide what it is that they really want.
And so we turn to the Crimea. All things considered, events have gone remarkably well for the Russians. In roughly the span of a month, and with very little bloodshed, the Crimea has gone from being an autonomous republic of Ukraine to a federal district of Russia in a manner so well thought out and executed that the Americans are probably busy taking notes. In hindsight, no-one should be surprised that Putin made his move the minute that Ukraine’s pro-Russian President – Viktor Yanukovych – was so unceremoniously deposed of. After all, the idea of a pro-Western, possibly NATO card carrying, Ukraine having control of a region which houses a large chunk of Russia’s navy must have been anathema to Putin’s KGB mind. In reasserting Russian authority over the Crimea, Putin has thus managed to strengthen Russia’s military position in the region by effectively countering growing NATO encroachment. But Russian strategists aren’t the only ones over the moon; Russian nationalists are also as happy as Larry. For them, the transfer of the Crimea from Russia to the Ukraine was a historical misstep, done at a time where it didn’t really matter whether the Crimea was Ukrainian or Russian because it was all Soviet regardless. When the Soviet Union collapsed a lot of Russians were left stranded in other former Soviet Republics, many of whom exhibited a strong desire to be reunited with their homeland. Thus for these nationalists, both in Russia and outside of it, the reincorporation of the Crimea into the Ukraine is a welcome solution to a historical accident.
But where do we go from here? What happens now? Currently, the West’s response to Russia’s actions has been one of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions. Whether either of these will have an effect on Russia depends on how far they are pursued. So far, in terms of diplomatic isolation, Russia has been excluded from the G-8 (now, once again, the G-7) but Russia’s response to this seems fairly relaxed, with one Russian minister saying that as ‘an experiment’, Russia can ‘wait a year or year and a half and see how we live without it’. And, of course, no matter what the West does, Russia will retain its UN Security Council veto regardless, which will severely hamper any Western efforts to legitimately solve any future international crises that may come their way. In terms of economic sanctions, these have the potential to cause much more harm if taken any further, with Bloomberg reporting that Russia will likely face a recession as economic penalties intensify. But will this force Russia to withdraw? Even with a recession, is unlikely that Putin would ever want to relinquish the Crimea now that it is part of Russia and, indeed, it is also unlikely that many Crimeans will ever want to go back to a now firmly anti-Russian Ukraine. However, one effect of these measures may be to prevent any further attempts by Putin to reincorporate any formerly Russian territory with a strong Russian presence back into Russia, should he be considering such actions.
However, as predictions for the near future go, a good bet to make is that things will slowly return to the status-quo, more or less, except for the fact that the Crimea is now Russian and the Ukraine is solidly pro-Western. At the end of the day, no-one really wants war with Russia over anything, if they can help it, because we all know that fighting with nukes is a bad idea. Russia will probably be a bit of a pariah for a while, and will have to sit back and take the economic hit, but it’s not as if the West can keep them out in the cold forever and nor does it really want to. And, as for the Ukraine, it is probably best for them to look on the bright side and towards a sunny EU future with firm NATO support, rather than pine for what is lost, because, as we are all hopefully aware, a war with Russia would not end well for them. So all’s well that ends well, I guess, unless I’m wrong of course and these idiots blow themselves to pieces over a poxy bit of land in the Black Sea. But, hey, glass half full, right?
*Garry Kasparov: considered by many to be the greatest chess grandmaster, Russian or otherwise, of all time. God, read a book.