The analysis of Putin’s fait accompli in securing Crimea for Russia will be continued, this time with greater emphasis on the dangers and difficulties faced by Russia following its political and military intervention into what was then territorial Ukraine.
As mentioned in Part I of my analysis, targeted sanctions against Russian elites were enacted. Immediately following the referendum, the US imposed sanctions, freezing assets of many high-ranking Russian officials deemed especially culpable in the Crimean crisis, and barring them from traveling to the US. Canada too was active on this front, likewise targeting senior Russian officials with travel bans and economic sanctions (in an act that garnered a retaliatory set of sanctions against 13 Canadian officials).
Further, Canada was in sync with other G7 countries in condemning Russia’s moves and suspending their participation in the G8 while keeping lines of communication open. Canada was a co-sponsor alongside Ukraine and a number of other states of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262, entitled “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine,” that affirmed Ukraine’s sovereignty and its internationally recognized borders, as well as decrying the March 16th referendum as invalid. As some commentators have noted, it may be the case that what the international community were doing was of little concern to Putin or Russia at large, however, reports of Russia’s economy edging closer to recession, it was perhaps not the time for Russia to spurn the international community.
Further, reports of domestic dissent within Russia itself to intervention in Crimea culminated in protests the day before the referendum came through. Allegedly thousands of Muscovites marched throughout the Russian capital on March 15th in solidarity with Ukrainians and in protest of what many believed to be wrongheaded adventurism.
Another concern domestically was the cost to Russia that will now come from annexing Crimea. According to one report, “Crimea has no fresh water supplies and it does not generate its own electricity; in fact, it receives 90 percent of water, 80 percent of electricity, 60 percent of other primary goods and 70 percent of its money from Kiev.” It is perhaps this analysis that led opposition leader Boris Nemtsov to his calculation that supporting Crimea will cost Russia at least twice what it was expending on Chechnya (already a source of political discontent among the Russian electorate). While Nemtsov certainly had a political axe to grind, and has made no secret of his opposition to Putin, the fact remains that Crimea appears to have been a costly purchase, one that Russia appeared ill-prepared to pay, given assessments of the Russian economy in the face of increasing capital flight, the devaluation of the ruble, and “budgetary crises” among its regions.
The political costs for Russia are still crystallizing as the knock-on effects of its actions continue (which will be elaborated in the third and final piece on this subject). There is speculation that separatist movements within the Russian Federation may become emboldened by Crimea’s referendum and claims to self-determination, but it is doubtful that this would in fact result in increased action from these groups in the face of Russia’s continued staunch opposition to them.
More concerning for Putin, are the reactions of his normally stalwart allies among those countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Citing the resurgence of Russian nationalism, and the presence of Russian enclaves throughout the central Asian former Soviet states, it has been posited that Russia’s unilateral military intervention in Crimea raised a few eyebrows and probably heart-rates among central Asian leaders for the express purpose that Russia once again demonstrated its resolve to intervene in its near abroad when its interests are threatened, no matter the consequences. Even the normally (relatively) dependable Russian ally, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was apparently having reservations about Russia’s annexation of Crimea (this did not, however, prevent Belarus from being one of the eleven states to oppose the UN General Assembly Resolution alongside Russia).
Finally, the problem of Russia inextricably placing themselves in the middle of a messy and volatile situation cannot be ignored. While the Crimean authorities seemed only too happy to join Russia, the sizable Crimean Tatar population, many of whom only returned to Crimea in the late 1980s after the entirety of the Tatar population was deported to Central Asia during the Second World War in yet another of Stalin’s absurd and horrific forms of collective punishment. Their boycott of the referendum and vocal opposition to returning to Russia is perhaps, in this light, understandable.
Over March and April, when things were still very much in flux, it appeared as though Putin and Russia held all the cards and were in a strong bargaining position while Ukraine and the rest of the international community played catch-up. However, as the economic situation in Russia remains in question, and reports of misgivings among Putin’s former supporters, both domestically and regionally come out, the final image becomes much less clear. The international community, while perhaps no less eclectic than in 1914, is certainly no longer willing to let unilateral military action go unnoticed (what is done about it is another question altogether).
Russia continues to be under a great deal of scrutiny, and the damage to Russia’s relations with not merely the EU or US, but many of its former close allies is growing as the wider Ukrainian drama continues to play itself out. While the act of presenting the world with the de facto occupation of Crimea under the pretence of stabilizing the region and protecting ethnic Russians secured the region for Russia, it is unclear if this was the original intention, or if events on the ground, and the ambitions of pro-Russian Crimean authorities and a nationalistic Duma moved the action along quicker than was expected. Regardless, while it is too late to oppose Russia’s intervention in Crimea, it is doubtful whether this sort of military action could be undertaken again, as members of the international community commited themselves to oppose a repeat event in the east of Ukraine.
It appeared Putin had a winning hand at the beginning of March, but it may have cost him dearly in the longer term, and if this is true, it would seem to be a severe misstep for a man who has displayed enormous patience and deftness in dealing with geopolitics in Russia’s resurgence. While Putin may have won Crimea in the last “hand”, the remaining cards available don’t appear to be going in his favour. That is both the art and danger of the fait accompli, while Putin may have won a big hand before the other players knew what was happening, the game is on-going, and all the players are certainly watching now.
The final question to be addressed in this altogether too long series of articles, is where does this leave us currently?
The focus of the world seemed to shift away from Crimea itself, firmly back within the Russian fold, to Ukraine’s eastern region as similar “self-determination” forces appeared to pop up again and again. Questions regarding the wider Ukraine, Russia’s economy and domestic opposition to the conflict, as well as on-going Western opposition remain to be addressed, and I will attempt to do so in the third installment…
Part 3 will be available on Monday, December 15th…
George Stairs is a second year M.A. candidate in the Conflict Analysis and Conflict Resolution field at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written on various conflicts before, including extensive research and writing on the possibility of instability in the Middle-East arising from the Arab Spring uprisings.
Featured Photo by Jurg Vollmer.