At the Group of 20 summit in Australia this past November (complete with photo ops of world leaders cuddling koalas), much was made of a moment that came to pass between Russian President Vladimir Putin, and our own Prime Minister Stephen Harper. When Putin approached Harper during a leaders’ retreat with an extended hand, Harper uttered the now famous phrase “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.”
While perhaps not as resolute as say, telling him to tear down a wall, and Harper still shook his hand, but a message was conveyed, and Putin left the G20 conference early. The whole affair was symptomatic of the dire state of relations between Russia and the West since the Ukrainian imbroglio began almost a year ago.
In the first part, I described the “art” of the presentation of an international fait accompli, with Putin and Russia having masterfully weathered the course of events in Crimea, and Ukraine in the wake of Yanukovych’s departure from Ukraine at the end of February this year. In contrast to the Austro-Hungarian snafu of 100 years ago, Russia moved swiftly and decisively on the ground in Crimea as well as running interference both internationally, in forums such as the United Nations, and more locally, by disrupting and skewing the messaging coming from Kiev and throughout Ukraine and Crimea, in order to secure what many saw as its goal, the retention of its bases on the Crimean peninsula, and a pro-Russia public relations coup for ethnic Russians throughout Ukraine.
However, this was not without its costs, as described in the second part, where I outlined some of the “dangers” with such a rapid, and apparently irrevocable move. These included international sanctions, the high cost domestically to Russia of “purchasing” Crimea and becoming more entangled in the Ukrainian conflict, and ongoing wider economic troubles, would appear to question the wisdom of acting in the way that Russia did, as remarkable and successful as it was initially.
Attention in the Ukrainian conflict has simmered over past months, resulting from the rise of the perhaps much fresher and flashier threat to regional peace and stability arising from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. This is of course, welcome news for Putin and Russian forces, as they now have a slight reprieve from the metaphorical microscope under which the international community had placed them in recent months. The fact that fewer still are even remarking on Crimea’s current status, having shifted what little focus there is in the Ukrainian region to those eastern areas still facing rebel forces, gives greater weight to the argument that Putin’s initial goal was largely met, and secured.
But what is the state of things in Crimea itself now, six months on from its secession from Ukraine and absorption by the Russian Federation? It seems that some of the predicted issues have come to bear, as discontent over shortages of potable water and electric power rises. In the meantime, Russia rushes to install connective utility and transport infrastructure to the isolated region before the winter months arrive. This has apparently been significantly hampered by Western sanctions limiting the delivery of much-needed equipment.
In fact, the sanctions seem to be having some effect, as Russia moved to secure business partners from Asia, notably China, in light of a continuing icy reception from the United States and the European Union. US pressure on its European allies to not engage in investments in Crimea has had some success in depriving the region of much needed business capital to help fund its infrastructure projects.
Other concerns prevail for Crimean minority groups, including those among the Crimean homosexual community and the ethnic Tatar population. The new head of the regional government, Sergei Aksyonov, has bent to enforcing Russia’s recent legislation on the ban of “homosexual propaganda” with apparent enthusiasm, making statements in September to the effect that homosexuals were unwanted, and unwelcome, and further, if there were any public events in the promotion of gay rights, that police and paramilitary forces would “take three minutes to clarify what [sexual] orientation is right.” This has led to a not insignificant stream of émigrés moving to the Ukrainian mainland.
For the 240,000 Crimean Tatars, the situation is similarly dark. Reports of disappearances, political repression in the form of the banishment of Tatar political leaders, a raid on the Mejils (the 33 elected member Crimean Tatar self-governance council in Simferopol), and intimidation of Tatar journalists, abound.
Russia has apparently “earmarked 373 Billion Rubles ($9 Billion US) for Crimea in 2015-17.” But with falling oil prices, and a shaky economy resulting in a collapse of the ruble, Russia may have to make some readjustments to their previous plans. On December 23, Obama signed off on an expansion of the existing sanctions against several Russian state firms, as well as giving more aid and arms to the Ukrainian government in the on-going conflict. That same day, the Russian central bank hiked the interest-rate in an effort to curb the losses, while at the same time prophesising that if oil stays at $60 per barrel, the Russian economy could contract by as much as 4.5 to 4.7 percent. The European nations for their part are talking about a new round of sanctions, specifically related to the annexation of Crimea, so the Crimean question is still on some foreign policy radars.
It is uncertain whether the plummeting price of oil globally was in Putin and his advisors’ calculations in March of this year, but it is certainly on their minds now. While the continuing conflict in the east of Ukraine grinds on, the question of Crimea’s fate seems sealed. The ultimate outcome of this entire series of events, that began almost a year ago now, is still anybody’s guess. Whether the Crimean fait accompli will go down in history as yet another textbook case of brilliant geo-strategic sleight-of-hand, or as a serious instance of overreach and overestimation of Russian power by Putin is still far from settled, and I expect will still be a matter of debate in the months and years to come.
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 Wikipedia Creative Commons.