How far will Putin go?

He took Crimea. The fear now is that Putin won’t stop there.

Stanislav Krasilnikov/Itartass/Keystone Press

Stanislav Krasilnikov/Itartass/Keystone Press

“I feel like I was sold,” says Anna Grigsan, a political science student in Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that voted last weekend to join with Russia, following a Russian invasion of the territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a treaty with Crimean leaders approving the union, and formal annexation will likely be completed this week with ratification in Russia’s parliament.

In a triumphant and emotional speech on Tuesday, Putin said, “In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been part of Russia.” He said its annexation was a necessary response to Western attempts to encroach on Russia. And he dismissed Western objections to it as hypocritical, given the West’s earlier support for Kosovo’s secession from Serbia.

Grigsan, who has lived in Crimea all her life and considers herself Ukrainian, now feels cut off from her own country, and abandoned by a government she believes didn’t do enough to keep Crimea from falling into Russia’s grasp.

Russian troops—along with pro-Russian forces whose exact identities are unclear—took control of Crimea in February after a popular protest movement toppled former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, who had rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia. The uprising against Yanukovych resulted in the deaths of at least 88 people, mostly protesters, during clashes with police. When Yanukovych suddenly fled Ukraine for Russia in late February, it appeared that the revolution had been successful, and that Ukraine would emerge from months of political turmoil with a degree of stability and optimism.

But the movement was never uniformly popular in the east and south of Ukraine where many ethnic Russians live. Hostility toward it was particularly pronounced in Crimea. The territory, which has a population that is about 60 per cent Russian, was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, when both states were part of the Soviet Union.

Among many ethnic Russians in Crimea, the protest movement was seen as a Western-funded plot to put fascists and Nazis in power. In interviews late last month, pro-Russian protesters in the Crimean capital of Simferopol said that anti-Yanukovych activists had been drugged and brainwashed. One woman, Khristina, said “normal people” from Crimea had gone to Kyiv and joined the demonstrations, and when they came back doctors found the drugs in their blood. She said similar stories were widely reported in local media.

Crimeans such as Khristina have welcomed the Russian takeover. There was a festive air following Sunday’s referendum, with ethnic Russians waving flags and celebrating long into the night. “Everybody’s very happy to be back home,” Grigsan says, speaking of Crimea’s pro-Russian population. She and her pro-Ukrainian friends feel differently. Some have left Crimea already, she says. Others will “stay here and fight for their freedom.”

Crimea is also home to 300,000 Tatars, Turkic Muslims who suffered horribly under Stalin during Soviet times. They are almost all opposed to Crimea’s union with Russia, and most boycotted the referendum. Reshat Ametov, a Tatar human rights activist who reportedly disappeared two weeks ago after he was led away by pro-Russian men in unmarked uniforms, was found dead and showing signs of torture on Monday. Thousands of Tatars attended his funeral the next day.

Although Grigsan is angry with the Ukrainian government, she allows that there is little it could have done to stop the invasion. The Russian military is simply too powerful compared to Ukraine’s. Russian troops and their local allies were, for the most part, not resisted and moved into Crimea without violence. That changed on Tuesday, when a Ukrainian officer was fatally shot during a takeover of a Ukrainian military base by pro-Russian forces. In response, Ukraine’s interim government authorized its soldiers in Crimea to use weapons to defend themselves. Previously they had been told to avoid doing so.

Still, Grigsan is glad Ukraine’s Western allies did not try to intervene with military force—something she says would have led to “blood on the streets.” But she does hope Western nations will now level sanctions against Russia.

Canada, the United States and the EU, which consider the referendum illegitimate, have already imposed asset freezes and travel bans on a small number Russian and Ukrainian officials. Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says these will have negligible impact. Indeed, some of those targeted have already mocked Western moves against them.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted “Comrade Obama” to suggest to the American President that the sanctions are useless because those hit by them don’t have assets outside Russia. Longtime Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov told a Russian newspaper he was honoured to be among those sanctioned. He said the only things that interest him about America are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Pollock. “No visa is needed to access their works. So I’m not missing anything.”

The greatest fear in Kyiv and among Ukraine’s allies is that Russia will now invade other parts of Ukraine where ethnic Russians have been agitating and demanding Russian intervention. Patrick says Western nations should focus on stopping Russia’s advance at Crimea by bolstering Ukraine’s defensive military capabilities and making it clear that Russia will incur steep costs should it advance deeper into Ukraine. The West must find a “delicate balance,” he says, that shows strength without giving Russia the impression it has nothing more to lose.

Broader economic sanctions are an obvious option—though these would hurt Western and especially European economies, too. Britain has profited immensely in recent years from the fortunes Russian oligarchs have invested in London. Continental Europe depends on Russia for much of its oil and gas. It may therefore be difficult to sustain resolve among EU member states to maintain serious economic pressure on Russia.

According to Jan Techau, director of the European centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, even broad and tough sanctions are unlikely to make much of a difference to the current situation in Crimea. What’s necessary, he says, is a long-term strategy to strengthen and support democratic and pro-Western forces in Ukraine, and in other states in the former Soviet sphere.

“You can do more sanctions, and you can inflict more pain, but that’s not going to change the situation on the ground,” he says. “So let’s make it a geopolitical priority to bring something to the table that can change the situation for the better. We have much more to offer than Russia. We can offer real economic progress. We can ensure a modernized and reformed state. We can ensure a future that is worth living. Russia can’t ensure any of that.” Techau, however, wonders whether the West has “the farsightedness and the willingness to invest so heavily” in a credible effort to develop the region. “For that you need determination over a very long period of time.”

Such a strategy may eventually pull Ukraine into the Western orbit. It may do the same for other states vulnerable to Russian expansionism, such as Moldova and Georgia. But it won’t reverse Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

This will leave hundreds of thousands of Crimean Russians jovial and proud, at least until the novelty of reunion with their ethnic kin runs up against the many downsides of living in a quasi-dictatorship. For others, such as Anna Grigsan, it’s as if their country has been yanked from beneath their feet, and all the options left to them are equally bleak.

“I love this land,” she says. “I don’t want to live in Russia. But, for now, I don’t want to leave Crimea.”


How far will Putin go?

  1. War is the traditional distraction from a bad economy at home.

    This time people don’t appear to be falling for it.

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