6 Things We’ve Learned from the Crimea Situation So Far

by Craig McVegas

3 March 2014

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you will be aware that things have been kicking off in Ukraine; first in Kiev, with pro-EU demonstrations resulting in the deposition of President Viktor Yanukovych, and now with the escalation of tensions in Crimea following Russia’s decision to heighten its military presence there. The situation does not look likely to be resolved quickly, but here are 6 things we’ve learned from events so far:

1. The US and UK are both hypocritical and deluded.

Okay, this one hasn’t so much been ‘learned’ as ‘confirmed’. Both John Kerry and William Hague, along with much of the diplomatic community have immediately leapt to the defence of Ukraine’s national sovereignty and the integrity of its borders, with Hague pledging £10m in assistance to Kiev. Speaking of Russia’s presence on the streets of Crimea, Kerry stated, “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text.” War on Terror exempted, obviously.

Furthermore Kerry has tried to put the chills up Putin by threatening Russia with ‘economic isolation’. Quite how Kerry intends to ensure this is unclear, particularly given Russia’s increasingly cordial relations with China. At the end of 2013 President Xi Jinping spoke of the emerging ‘special relationship’ between the old and new superpowers, and the Russian Foreign Minister is reporting that he has the backing of his Chinese counterpart.

2. Putin is desperate to keep a grip on Ukraine.

Even if the means are unexpected, it should be no surprise that Putin is now seeking to assert Russia’s position in Ukraine: pro-EU forces have just ousted pro-Russia Yanukovych from a country which not only houses Russian military bases but is also an historic economic neighbour. Putin is trying to undermine the new government using Crimea – a peninsular and Autonomous Republic with closer historical ties to Moscow than Kiev – to destabilize the region with knock-on effects through the country. Under the pre-text of defending ethnic Russians in Crimea (from what exactly is unclear), Russian troops this weekend demanded Ukrainian forces hand over their weapons, and have now seized the Ukrainian military bases in the peninsula. The US has been forced to concede Russia now has complete operational control of Crimea.

3. The EU is strapped for strategy.

Anyone heard anything from Germany lately? No, me neither, apart from Merkel’s feeble remark days into the situation about Putin being ‘out of touch with reality’. Whether it’s because Germany is trying to keep out of the situation or because it’s the biggest recipient of Russian oil in Europe, the EU heavyweights are keeping unusually quiet. As the creaky gears of Cold War-era Nato are grinding into motion, the EU seems to be in a muddle over what to do about the actions of its foremost trade partner beyond letting Ukraine know it’s welcome in the clubhouse whenever it’s ready. The UN is looking a bit unsure too, with the Security Council spending hours this weekend debating whether their emergency meeting should be open or closed, before discussing anything at all. As Paul Mason excellently put it in his Channel 4 blog, “The west – run by a generation that believes the market is the solution to everything – suddenly found you cannot outsource strategy; that there are situations in which the boss of JP Morgan cannot help you.”

4. What little strategy it has is coming from Poland.

The Polish PM has been quick to call for stability in the region and the Foreign Minister this weekend cut short his visit to Iran to ‘deal with’ the Crimea situation. Observers would be wrong to dismiss Poland’s involvement in working through the crisis; they have the largest army in the EU and anti-Russian sentiments are widespread throughout the country. In November, mass anti-Russian demonstrations resulted in the trashing of the Russian Embassy.

5. Ukraine is by no means united.

Despite previous attempts by the mainstream media to characterize the turn against pro-Russian forces in Ukraine as flatly pro-EU or ‘pro-West’, as if the fall of Yanukovych was some sort of Berlin Wall moment, that rosy picture is no longer holding. Demonstrations and the hoisting of Russian flags across various cities in Ukraine have shown there is by no means a consensus, and even within the anti-Yanukovych camp there are a host of divisions, represented by tendencies ranging from the pro-EU Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform to the neo-Nazi Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Even prior to Russia’s intervention in Crimea, we would be wrong to assume that following Yanukovych’s impeachment it was ever going to be plain sailing.

6. The implications span far and wide.

As the fervour over blood and soil heightens, Turkey has also waded in over concern for the (often fiercely anti-Russian) Crimean Tatar ethnic minority, as well as Crimea’s autonomy. A 230-year old treaty says that if any third party takes control of Crimea, it is to be returned to Turkey.

Meanwhile, Lithuania – with the backing of Latvia and Estonia – was the one to initiate the Nato emergency meetings invoking Article 4, which refers to a Nato member’s sovereignty being threatened. The Baltic states all have large ethnic Russian populations, and given the pre-text of the Russian invasion into civilian Crimea they are becoming nervous that they could be next. While this might be hasty if we view Putin’s concerns over ethnic Russians as a guise for a political intervention into Ukrainian developments, once we bring Polish manoeuvring and Sino-Russian relations into the mix, it seems fair to say the situation is going to become a lot more complicated before it is resolved.

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