Russia Direct presents the latest monthly roundup from U.S.-based think tanks as they analyze the tumultuous events in Crimea.

Crimea: Turning a page in the history of Eastern Europe. Photo: Sergey Savostianov / RG

In the days leading up to the March 16 Crimean referendum and in its immediate aftermath, U.S.-based think tanks weighed in on what the move to annex Crimea means not just for Russia and Ukraine, but also for the U.S. and the EU.  They considered the economic and political implications for Crimea, analyzed potential scenarios for Ukraine’s future and speculated about the broader geostrategic ramifications for Germany and Eastern Europe.

Turning a page in the history of Eastern Europe

In “Crimea’s Choice,” Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, observes that the Crimean referendum “turned a page in the history of Eastern Europe.”

Trenin believes the focus should now be on Ukraine, where the only viable option is federalization in order to keep the country “in one piece.” Federalization means, “in plain Russian, no NATO membership, and no EU association for Ukraine,” Trenin observes.Since neither the West nor Kiev will concur, the prognosis is that “for the foreseeable future, Ukraine will be a geopolitical battleground.”

At the same time, Wojciech Konończuk, head of the Department for Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova at the Center for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, argues that federalization would grant Ukraine’s regions, especially those dominated by Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians, far-reaching political and economic autonomy: The ongoing Kremlin-inspired turmoil in Lugansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Odessa suggests that Moscow “hopes to create alternative centers of power beyond Crimea in order to enhance its influence on both Kiev and the West,” he writes in In “Russia’s Real Aims in Crimea”.

Meanwhile, Barry Pavel, who worked on the White House National Security Council under both President Obama and President George W. Bush, said reasserting control of Crimea may be even more important to Russia than South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

To Heather Conley, a Europe analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the complacency manifested by the U.S. and Europe resembled “appeasement.”

In “Crimea’s Tatar Factor,” published in Eurasia Outlook on March 7, Alexey Malashenko, Scholar in Residence, Religion, Society and Security Program at Moscow Carnegie Center, notes that the “Islamic factor” has received little attention in the Crimean crisis to date.

Malashenko writes that, while most Tatars are moderate, a significant segment of Muslim youth is quite radical and “they sympathize and communicate with their ideological companions in the North Caucasus. These connections date back to the time of the Chechen wars.”  

Malashenko notes that while local politicians, Kiev and Moscow are wooing the Muslim community, the Islamic radicals “stand to benefit from the instability.”

Crimea as a trigger for escalation in cyberspace

Meanwhile, Roger McDermott, Senior Fellow in Eurasian Military Studies at the Jamestown Foundation, warns that the Crimea crisis may result in fueling the tensions in cyberspace. 

In a March 11 article, “Russia’s Information Campaign in Crimea: Nodes, Themes and Caution”, he quotes Valentyn Nalivaichenko, head of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU), who claims  that the Ukrainian telecommunications system came under sustained cyberattack from officially-backed Russian sources “linked to equipment installed in Russian-controlled Crimea.”

McDermott notes Russia’s cyberoperations have been relatively low-key, but the situation may change after the Crimean referendum on joining Russia. “The first signs of any escalation will be in cyberspace,” McDermott concludes.

Crimea: A bitter blow for German diplomacy?

Russia risks losing its most important European ally by invading the Crimea: Germany. According to Judy Dempsey, a non-resident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, Berlin is facing one of its most serious crises since the fall of the Berlin Wall because its large-scale political, economic and diplomatic investments in its relations with Russia may have been squandered.

Dempsey sees Russia’s policy in Crimea as “a bitter blow for German diplomacy”, given that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, is a firm believer in Ostpolitik, the Eastern approach that has underpinned the German-Russian relationship for decades.

Dempsey warns, “Russia should not underestimate what losing Germany as an ally could mean. Putin’s rejection of Germany’s diplomatic overtures could precipitate the end of Steinmeier’s long-held belief in Ostpolitik.”