By Alexander O'Riordan · 18 Mar 2014
This weekend Crimea’s hastily organised referendum concluded as expected with an ethnically Russian majority population voting overwhelmingly to merge with Russia. The Western response of sanctions and punitive measures against Russia for its shamefacedly opportunistic occupation will prove in the long run to be largely bluster. There is no doubt the Kremlin is anxious to counter a growing Western-leaning politics in the region and to annex a strategically important part of Ukraine.
This latest action builds on Putin’s grand project of rebuilding Russian place and pride in the global order. The Sochi Olympics was a purposeful demonstration of Russia’s prowess that includes deeper investment in its military-industrial-complex. And, most recently Putin called for new standardised history books arguing that current textbooks are "ideological garbage" and "denigrate the Soviet people's role in the struggle with fascism."
The West, however, will fail to stop Russia because what happens in reality in Crimea plays second fiddle to a perfectly orchestrated performance that leaves the West flat-footed and unwilling to act.
If Russia were to annex Crimea, Western threats could realistically be implemented. However, Russia is being careful not to annex Crimea but to ‘recognise’ the local population’s democratic desires to be independent. Russia will argue that on humanitarian and ethical grounds, Crimea’s population should be protected and supported. In all likelihood, Russia will then respond with military, administrative and economic assistance to the new ’semi-autonomous region’ rather than to absorb it wholeheartedly into Russia. Military assistance will be a continued, if not expanded military presence from the current right to post 25,000 Russian troops to Crimea. Administrative control will be jurisdication over the central government institutions and economic assistance will be Russian private and government owned corporations running the economy. When criticised, Russia will simply argue that their support for a ‘threatened’ population in Crimea is no different from supporting and even recognising the will of Palestinians, Tibetans, Taiwan or even the Falklands.
The West will insist that Russia’s narrative on Crimea is a plain faced lie but when push comes to shove they cannot prove the masked gunmen controlling Crimea are actually a proxy for or in fact the Russian defence force itself. To compare again with Palestine, Russia will point out that calling the masked gunmen Russian is as ludicrous and politically motivated an argument as calling Hamas’ masked operatives in Palestine, Iranian. While everybody knows who the masked gunmen in Crimea are, the ambiguity Russia will invoke allows just enough leverage for Russia to maintain its assertion of innocence. The possibility, however unlikely, of plausible deniability about the real identity of the masked forces, will prevent Western diplomats from referring to Crimea as a military occupation.
Behind closed doors, however, Western leaders will still maintain there is no doubt that Russia is to blame and that clearly the Kremlin has orchestrated this invasion and occupation. They will argue that Russia must be stopped because if not, it will set a precedent that could lead to other countries facing similar sub-regional fractures such as could be the case with the Basque region in Spain or Somaliland in Somalia. They will point to the real likelihood of an expansion to other towns in the Eastern Ukraine where there is an ethnic Russian majority. Western analysts will invoke the spectre of the cold war and call for Russia to be stopped: “the Russian bear has awoken from its long hibernation”, they will say, “The longer the slumber the hungrier the bear. Its voracious appetite means that Russia must be stopped before it consumes the region”.
However, after all the outrage, threats of sanction and comparisons to the Cold War subside, the West will come to conclude that fighting Russia over Crimea is simply not worth it. Analysts will point out that Crimea was never really a Western asset in the first place because it has always had an enormous Russian military presence there. So when the score is tallied up, nothing has really been lost to Western interests. Real politik will intervene and analysts will demonstrate that Russia today is not the Russia of the Soviet Union; it is considerably smaller and weaker and there are bigger global threats to worry about today. A weak Russia is trying to extend its reach in places where it has sympathy but because there are so few places in the world that yearn to re-join the Russian motherland, the risks of a resurgent Russia will be dismissed as insignificant.
Furthermore, the costs of confronting Russia are high. Not only does Germany rely on Russian gas for heating and industrial energy, so too does the rest of Ukraine. Further brinkmanship towards Russia will likely result in Russian gas being cut off as a punishment to Russia. While the costs may be containable to the German economy, it is unlikely that any Western power is ready to pay for and ensure an equivalent energy source is made available to the rest of the Ukrainian population. Furthermore, the threat of just one winter without power would likely be enough to convince what remains of Ukraine to follow suit with Crimea rather than align with the West. Finally, it is important to keep in mind that punitive measures against Russia will hurt Western interests in Afghanistan (due to access), Iran (on the nuclear negotiations), Syria and many other important areas requiring Russian consent.
Sadly for Ukraine, it looks like they will lose Crimea to Russia and will just have to accept it. The West will likely respond with greater aid and talk of support but it seems highly unlikely that this latest incident of Russian aggression will end any differently than it did when Russia annexed parts of Georgia. Many pundits have too quickly forgotten that it was only in 2008 when Russia annexed South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia. These two strategically important regions, representing a fifth of Georgia’s territory remain in Russian hands to this day and the West has largely endorsed this arrangement through its continued silence on the issue.
Once the dust settles, like with Georgia, Crimea will gradually move from the front pages while the West and Russia will continue their existing dialogue and cooperation. For sure there will be many statements of indignation and perhaps even new threats of sanctions. However, when history looks back on this it will see that the West did nothing of importance and, in fact, conceded Crimea back to Russia. In the bigger scheme of things, while the West has no interest in an armed conflict, Crimea is an asset Russia is clearly willing to fight for. After all, Crimea is what ensures a strategic naval presence in what is a rare warm water port for Russia. Losing Crimea would mean Russia’s military would concede considerable access to the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and thus Europe and North Africa too. On the other hand, the West has little to gain by fighting for Crimea. It gives little added advantage and the cost of fighting for it is simply not worth the return on investment.
In this case, once again, real politik will determine the outcome, not Western moral indignation.