Russia flexes its muscles


Russia flexes its muscles, President Vladimir Putin, S Madhusudhana Rao. The Kremlin’s legislative measures followed angry reactions and threats from...

The overwhelming Crimea vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia is not unexpected. Nor the US and European reaction to the March 16th referendum in which over 97 per cent had favoured a reunion with Russia, against the wishes of Ukraine, and, of course, the West which is accusing Moscow of trying to annex the strategically important Crimea.

In fact, President Vladimir Putin has taken the first legislative step towards annexing Crimea, formally declaring the peninsula’s request to join Russia to the country’s parliament. On Tuesday, he told Russian parliamentarians and representatives from Crimea’s new pro-Russian leadership that their referendum was held “in full accordance with international law”. A treaty was signed later on the breakaway region’s entry into the Russian Federation, formally sealing Crimea’s accession and its status as an independent state.

The Kremlin’s legislative measures followed angry reactions and threats from the US and its allies which included sanctions and American travel restrictions on key aides to Putin. In the coming days, the European Union in league with the US is likely to impose more curbs on Russia for what it calls illegal seizure of Crimea in violation of all treaties and international laws, a charge Putin vehemently refutes.

Whatever the point and counter-point may be and merits of their arguments are, Ukraine has become a pawn in the hands of the only superpower and its former adversary. It is a political power game being played out adroitly with Ukraine’s autonomous region Crimea dragged in for a Big Bear hug. Who has precipitated the crisis pushing the peninsula into the lap of Moscow is impertinent since US President Barack Obama and Russian strongman Putin have upped the ante in a region that was epicenter of Cold War.

For centuries, Ukraine had been the breadbasket of Europe and Russians from the time of Empire to dictators had eyed the fertile region and their ties with it could best be described as love and hate relationship until Ukraine became independent with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. By then Ukraine had expanded with Moscow transferring the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine in 1954 and declaring it as an autonomous region.

Now, it is realised that it was a historic mistake since a majority of Crimean population – 58 per cent – is Russian and only 24 per cent make up Ukrainians. The rest are others like Tatars of Mongolian descent. Moreover, the peninsula on the Black Sea has been dominated by the Russians for over two centuries since it was annexed by Russia in 1783. In other words, for centuries, Crimea and its population have had stronger links with Russia rather than Ukraine. A point the Putin government has pushed forward to justify its takeover move and to reject the European and American criticism of annexation.

In doing so, Putin appears to have outwitted his Western counterparts; first, by turning tables on them over what he called a western-inspired coup against elected Ukrainian President Yanukovich who later fled to Russia and installation of interim president Oleksandr Turchynov; two, by encouraging pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea to reject the new Ukrainian leader and opt for a referendum to merge with Russia.

Though nothing was done officially, Putin’s actions in sending troops to Crimea ostensibly to protect Russia’s Black Sea fleet and ethnic Russians from being harassed by Ukrainians and appointment of a pro-Moscow leader Sergei Aksyonov who called the referendum point out to a well stage-managed show. However, Russian intervention in Crimea that clearly went against the Russo-Ukraine accords raised hackles in the West. Crimea is an autonomous republic within Ukraine, electing its own parliament and MPs choosing a prime minister with Kiev’s approval. By rejecting Ukraine’s authority, Crimea, technically, has made all the treaties null and void.

Europeans and Americans argue since the peninsula was taken over by pro-Russian Crimean forces as well as regular Russian Army in late February when Yanukovych was toppled following months of protests, the Kremlin action has no legitimacy and insist on reverting it. But the weapon Moscow has in its hands is the Crimean parliament’s unanimous decision on referendum and separating from Ukraine to spurn western criticism and threats of crippling sanctions.

It is unlikely that Putin would go back in the face of US-EU threats and in the coming days both sides may reassess their positions. Until then the Cold War would continue with the West saber-rattling and Putin playing his cards coolly. Two scenarios that are likely to emerge are: A trade-off and a compromise to accommodate the interests of each side in Europe.

Under the trade-off, Crimea would be part of Russia as per the “people’s wish” and the West could patronise Ukraine under the watchful eyes of Russia which doesn’t want a pro-West state in its neighborhood. Under a compromise solution, Putin may insist on independent status to Crimea and UN membership.

At some point of time, both sides will realise the need to end the face-off in the interest of trade relations. Both Europe and Russia are inter-dependent on energy sources and if mild sanctions turn strong, both sides will be adversely affected. More importantly, neither the US nor the EU could haul Russia in front of the world body over Crimea referendum – whether it is inspired or held as a matter of historic necessity. However, experts believe that Crimea can’t secede unilaterally even if its population wants to. Instead, it has to engage the Ukraine government in a dialogue to explore the chances for more autonomy. It is doubtful whether such chances exist in the present circumstances. But legally speaking, the region remains part of Ukraine, a status that Russia backed when pledging to uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine in a memorandum signed in 1994. It was also inked by the US, UK and France. But when it comes to protecting strategic interests, big powers have no qualms in treating treaties like pieces of paper. When South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from Georgia in 2008 and declared independence and when the later tried to retake the two territories, Russia sent troops and defeated Georgian forces. Later Moscow has recognised both. The Crimea case may be different. But Russia is flexing its muscles.

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