Alexey Fenenko discusses the real reasons the Kremlin is concerned about Crimea and the consequences for Russia if it deploys armed forces in Ukraine.
Military personnel stand guard outside the territory of a Ukrainian military unit, with Ukrainian and Crimean flags seen in the background, in the village of Perevalnoye outside Simferopol March 2, 2014. Photo: Reuters
The newest stage of the Ukrainian crisis – in which Moscow now feels compelled to intervene militarily in Crimea – has highlighted some unpleasant political realities for Moscow.
The first is that there wasn't a single mass demonstration in support of President Viktor Yanukovych that numbered at least a couple of million people.
The second is that neither the army nor the security forces in Ukraine showed any serious opposition to Euromaidan.
And, most importantly in regard to current events in Crimea, the idea of splitting off southeastern Ukraine has not found widespread support in the eastern and southern regions. There is dissatisfaction with the events in Kiev, in Kharkov, Lugansk and Odessa. But the people in these regions are not calling for sovereignty, and are not creating armed units to fight for independence, as we saw in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and Croatia.
Separatist sentiments in Crimea are overstated
There are signs of serious dissatisfaction in Crimea. Demonstrations in Sevastopol, Kerch, and Simferopol, including some that brought out Russian flags, give an impression of separatism. However, it's not all as simple here as it might seem at first.
Not many Russian speakers in Crimea are demanding to break away. A large number of them integrated into the Ukrainian socio-political system long ago. In the Crimean Tatars, Kiev has a powerful resource with which to influence Simferopol. And most importantly, unrest in Crimea will not necessarily lead to an outbreak of separatism.
The situation might develop along the same lines as in 1994, when the government of Leonid Kuchma entered into negotiations with the Crimean parliament and successfully blocked the self-proclaimed government of Yuri Meshkov.
It seems that the "chaos in Ukraine" scenario that was popular a week ago is actually far from reality. The split between eastern and western Ukraine, which supposedly "can no longer live with each other" has been exaggerated in the media. People in eastern Ukraine have integrated into the Ukrainian state and would prefer dialogue with Kiev rather than conflict.
The past four years have shown that even with a president like Viktor Yanukovych, whose loyalties lie with the Kremlin, Kiev has not abandoned its policy of balance. Ukrainian leadership signed the Kharkov agreement in 2010, extending the lease on the Russian military base in Sevastopol until 2042. But Ukraine didn't enter the Customs Union and has not expressed a willingness to participate in Russia's planned Eurasian Union.
Kiev is not winding down its participation in the EU's Eastern Partnership, which was activated in the summer of 2013 and has led to the current political crisis. New politicians will be much less loyal to Russia than Yanukovych, who balanced himself between Moscow and Brussels. (It is sufficient to remember that the "moderate" Yulia Tymoshenko back in 2007 on the pages of the American magazine Foreign Affairs urged Washington to develop a new strategy of Russian containment.)
Ukraine has no plan for integration with Russia
Behind this lies an unpleasant fact. The modern Ukrainian state is built on the idea of opposing Russia, not drawing closer to it. President Leonid Kuchma published a book with the telling title of "Ukraine is not Russia," not "Ukraine is not Poland" or "Ukraine is not Hungary."
This is the attitude that prevails among the Ukrainian elite. "Moderate" leaders in Kiev quietly but firmly resisted integrating with the CIS, and the "radicals" openly declared their intention to distance themselves from Russia until they enter NATO and the EU.
The Ukrainian elite has no plans for broad integration with Russia - especially by making concessions to Russia. Over the past twenty years there have been no real movements calling for immediate integration with Russia at all costs either in the eastern or southern regions. Hence, Moscow has limited resources when dealing with Kiev.
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Ukraine's military deployed in the city of Sevastopol, located on the Black Sea coast of the Crimean Peninsula Photo: RIA Novosti / Andrey Stenin
If the new government in Ukraine gains strength, this will cause a number of new challenges for Russia that it has avoided for the past five years.
Firstly, victory for the opposition would look like a failure of Russia's Eurasian Union project. Since the spring of 2012, the Kremlin has been holding talks on joining the union with not only states of the Customs Union, but also with other countries of the CIS like Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Most of these talks, except for fragile agreements with Yerevan, failed. The "revolution" in Kiev, which was caused by an attempt to get closer to Moscow, will look like a demonstration of the weakness of Russia's position in the CIS.
Secondly, a victory for forces unfriendly to Russia in Ukraine would empower the opponents of integration with Moscow in other CIS countries. There is potential for such discontentment not only in Armenia and the Central Asian countries. Even in Belarus, a significant segment of the elite is in favor of a more balanced policy based on increased cooperation with the EU.
Third, the new Ukrainian leadership could again raise the issue of basing the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. Russia currently has no alternative to the Black Sea base in Sevastopol. Building a base in Novorossiysk, Tuapse or Abkhazia would take time and a significant financial investment.
Fourth, energy relations between Russia and Ukraine could worsen, setting off another gas crisis like those in 2006 and 2009. These crises appeared to end in Gazprom’s favor. But at the same time they complicated Russia's relations with the EU, giving Washington room to play off the contradictions between Moscow and Brussels.
Fifth, the crisis in Ukraine threatens to undermine the Russian-German partnership that has emerged since the beginning of the 1990s. This partnership has allowed Germany to serve not only as an important economic partner for Russia, but also as a mediator in talks with the U.S., and in many respects a lobbyist for Russian interests in NATO.
The partnership with Russia has allowed Germany to compensate for the limits placed on its sovereignty by the Moscow Treaty of 1990 and has given it the status of intermediary between Moscow and Washington.
Undermining this partnership because of the Ukrainian crisis would not be beneficial to either side. For Germany, it would mean turning into yet another Eastern European state that is forever embittered. And if Russia quarrels with the countries of continental Europe, it would have no negotiation partner except Britain, which is a country loyal to Washington. It would have virtually no ability to conduct foreign policy in Europe.
Two future scenarios, both dangerous
The Ukrainian crisis is dangerous for Russia not only because of its long-term effects, but also because there is a lack of time. The situation is changing so fast that there is almost no time to work out countermeasures.
It is unlikely that Ukraine will become internally destabilized (despite the hopes of the forces on the extreme right and extreme left). In this regard, it is important for Moscow to leave channels open for dialogue with the Ukrainian leadership. Otherwise, the Kremlin might face a repeat of the difficulties it experienced interacting with the administration of Viktor Yushchenko – and the crisis may not end as well for the Russian government as it did in 2007.
Currently, Russia has no leverage to influence the situation in Ukraine. Theoretically, this could force Moscow to exploit the separatist sentiment to radically change the geopolitical situation on the Black Sea.
If this happens, the situation could unfold in two ways. Firstly, along the lines of the conflict in South Ossetia in 1992, when, after extended military operations, the Kremlin offered to mediate talks between both parties.
Or there could be a repeat of the Five Day War of 2008, when Russia launched a limited military operation to "enforce the peace" of one of the sides.
However, in the case of Ukraine, such a scenario would mean a major regional war would break out in the Black Sea region. It remains to be seen if the Kremlin is willing to take such radical steps.