Ukraine's day of reckoning

Post-referendum, Crimea may become a puppet state—and stop Ukraine from ever joining Europe

Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters

Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters

On March 16, citizens in the autonomous Republic of Crimea will vote to secede from Ukraine. Indeed, they will have no choice. The Crimean referendum (“so-called referendum,” according to the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv) will offer voters in Ukraine’s southern peninsula two choices: secede from Ukraine, or secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. On March 6, Crimea’s local parliament voted for the latter option. The referendum is meant only to “confirm” that decision.

“The way it looks right now, it’s going to be a North Korea-style election,” John Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told Maclean’s. “Where is the choice to stay in Ukraine? This referendum is going to be a joke.”

By many accounts, the hours after the referendum will play out as such: The U.S. and European Union will declare the referendum to be illegitimate. Ukraine’s new leaders, who have vowed not to cede “a single centimetre” of land to Moscow, will do the same. Meanwhile, Russia—which promises to “respect the historic choice of the people of Crimea”—will offer its official recognition to an autonomous Crimea. Russian flags will be raised. People will take to the streets. By the most pessimistic accounts, Crimea was lost the moment Russian troops invaded last month, leaving only the question of whether Moscow dares to carry out a full-scale annexation.

The referendum is being hailed as the greatest contest between Russia and the West since the Cold War: the proxy in a larger battle for control of the former Soviet sphere. In recent years, there have been other faceoffs with Moscow: notably, in Georgia. But Crimea is “far more important,” says Herbst: both because it’s the base for Russia’s Black Sea naval fleet and because it is part of Ukraine, far and away the post-Soviet region’s sweetest spoil. Ukraine, a large nation of some 46 million, is a buffer between Russia and the European Union—and a vital conduit for natural gas flows to the continent.

Already, the U.S. and EU are making a show of cutting Russia down to size. Several G8 members are threatening to drop out of an upcoming summit, to be held in Russia—and begun speaking of a “G7.” Earlier this month, President Obama sent U.S. fighter jets to police the skies over Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—and announced new training operations in Poland. In turn, Russian forces in Crimea seized airports and border posts, and barred entry to international monitors. On March 8, a Ukrainian defense spokesman relayed allegations that amphibious military ships from Russia had unloaded hundreds of military vehicles in east Crimea. Around that time, the speaker of the Crimean Parliament asked the 15,000 Ukrainian troops in Crimea to leave “quietly.” This week brings new allegations that Russian troops have laid minefields along the strip of land connecting Crimea to the rest of Ukraine.

“At a minimum,” says Herbst, “we’re talking about a frozen conflict situation. The maximum would be that they don’t stop at Crimea.” Many foresee a Cold War-esque stalemate on the Black Sea. Others think Europe might come through, at the 11th hour, with crippling economic sanctions that will weaken Putin’s hand. Others worry that Russia will ultimately move troops into Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east—and thus begin war in the middle of Europe. And so all eyes remain fixed on Crimea.

More than three months after anti-government protests began in Kyiv, then president Viktor Yanukovych fled the capital. Days later, pro-Russia gunmen seized territory across Crimea. On March 1, the Russian parliament approved Putin’s request to use military force in Ukraine. Nevertheless, for a while, it wasn’t clear if the occupying soldiers were Russians. To start, the initial trickle of troops, none of whom wore Russian military uniforms, was furtive and anemic—and doesn’t Moscow make a better show of invasion than that? Moscow, for its part, launched a campaign of smoke and mirrors. The Kremlin denied having sent troops to Crimea, dismissing the allegations as “complete nonsense.”

But Russian objections proved a farce. “There clearly are Russian troops in Crimea,” announced U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague. “There is no plausible explanation of where else they have come from.” The soldiers speak Russian, are equipped with military-grade weapons and drive trucks bearing Russian plates. Some privately told journalists that they are indeed from the Russian army: in Crimea on Putin’s orders.

Geopolitics weighs heavily in Crimea, which houses Russia’s fleet at a base in Sevastopol, and up to 25,000 Russian military personnel. Ukraine gained independence in 1991, when the Soviet Union fell, but agreed to lease the Black Sea base to Russia—on the condition that Moscow respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

In recent weeks, Putin has insisted on his right to “protect” ethnic Russians in Ukraine. “If the people ask us for help,” says Putin, “we believe this would be absolutely legitimate.” It came as no surprise that Russia’s parliament voted to change its law to make it easier to annex territories inhabited by ethnic Russians.

Crimea is dominated by ethnic Russians, many of whom remain fervently pro-Moscow. But it is also home to Ukrainians (about 24 per cent)—and ethnic Tatars (12 per cent), who fear union with Russia above all. Tatars lived in Crimea for centuries, but at the end of the Second World War, they were forcibly deported to central Asia by Stalin. In the 1980s, they were allowed to return—and some did, but with strong memories of what can happen under Moscow’s command.

Recent weeks have seen a ramp-up of tension between these two camps. At rallies and counter-rallies across the peninsula, slogan and song compete: “Glory to Ukraine!” against “Moscow is our capital!” The Ukrainian anthem against old Soviet ballads. Blows have been exchanged. On March 10, a pro-Ukrainian rally turned bloody when pro-Russia gangs and Cossack fighters beat and whipped peaceful demonstrators. At other demonstrations, men have turned up with axe handles and chains.

All along, Western leaders have urged restraint, although some have been criticized for exhibiting too much. Germany and Britain, in particular, have been lambasted for appearing cagey on the issue of enacting stringent financial sanctions against Russia. But no side wants war—or even a rogue Russia, left to its own devices in the east.

The situation’s Cold War sheen has other former Soviet states wondering what Crimea’s fate might mean for the region. “Russia,” said Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, “is trying to rewrite the borders of Europe after the Second World War. If we allow this to happen, next will be somebody else.”

“It’s almost clear what the referendum will bring,” says Andreas Umland, a politics professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. “The interesting moment is going to be when there comes an official request for the Russian annexation of Crimea. How will Putin react?” On March 7, Russia’s parliament affirmed that it would support a vote by Crimea to join the Russian Federation; the first sign from Moscow that it was open to annexing the peninsula. One Federal Council parliamentarian compared the Crimean referendum to Scotland’s upcoming vote on independence from Britain.

Still, Umland thinks a “compromise solution” is most likely: whereby Crimea would “remain de jure part of Ukraine, but de facto Russia-controlled.” A puppet enclave in the middle of Europe. And then what?

Crimea would not be Europe’s only “frozen” land. The Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in addition to the Moldovan district of Transnistria, are all disputed breakaway states. (Russia and Georgia went to war over South Ossetia in 2008.) All three areas have sizable ethnic Russian populations and are recognized as independent by Moscow—but not by the West. And all three are victims of an enduring geopolitical standoff on their soil, which renders Georgia and Moldova susceptible to Russian caprice and limits their ability to integrate into Western institutions. After all, you can’t admit a broken country into Europe.

In fact, some have accused Putin of engineering a similar state of affairs in Crimea: of deliberately creating a mess inside Ukraine that will thwart the country’s westward advance. Writing in the New York Times, Ruslan Pukhov, director of Russia’s Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, hypothesized that Putin actually wants Crimea to remain part of Ukraine. This way, he could use Crimea as political leverage in future tussles. “This strategy seems to be paying off already,” writes Pukhov. Much discussion on this front has centred on the issue of natural gas—and Russia’s wildly lucrative status as Europe’s largest natural gas provider. Moscow provides about a third of the continent’s gas, more than half of which travels via pipelines in Ukraine. But Europe is quickly moving to wean itself off Russian supplies. Already, the continent is far less reliant on Russian gas than it was in 2009, when Russia (as a result of a pricing spat with Kyiv) last switched off gas flows through Ukraine. The 2009 move caused short-term gas shortages in several European states, but it proved to be a turning point; 2014 could be another one.

In the future, some of Europe’s natural gas could come from the U.S. In 2015, American companies expect to begin exporting natural gas. Some U.S. lawmakers want the process to be sped up—as a result of Russian manoeuvrings in Ukraine. (Tellingly, the head of the U.S. State Department’s new bureau of energy resources is a former American ambassador to Ukraine.) All this would hurt Russia badly, since more than half of Moscow’s federal budget comes from oil and gas sales. Europe needs Russia. But Russian energy behemoth Gazprom needs Europe, too.

Given this, is it possible that Putin has overstepped in Crimea? And that the result will be a gradual sidelining of Russian influence? “The long-term effect” of the crisis, says Hague, will be “to recast European politics in a way that will reduce Russian leverage over Europe.”

It is also possible that Russia’s mismanagement has more firmly pitted the rest of Ukraine (including the Russian-dominated east) against Russia—or least against the Kremlin. Kyiv has already accused Moscow of stage-managing several of the largest pro-Russia rallies in the east: busing Russian demonstrators across the border to kick up dust. Critically, a number of Ukrainian oligarchs (some of them from the east) have recently thrown their lot in with the new government in Kyiv.

Now what of the will of the Crimean people? Already, the yet-to-be-held referendum is proving a test of grand principles: noble ideas of sovereignty and self-rule. To this end, Russian analysts have resurrected the spectre of Kosovo. In 1999, Kosovo seceded from Serbia. Serbia (backed by Russia) fiercely resisted the move, which culminated in a 2008 independence bid—but the U.S. supported it, touting the right of Kosovars to self-determination. Now, Washington is arguing that a small breakaway region populated by an ethnic minority must stay bound to its motherland, and Moscow wants to put it to a vote. Kosovo, of course, was very different from Crimea—but some suggest it reveals a tension underlying Western support for Ukrainian rule.

With days to go, and a stalemate in Crimea, observers are letting their glances wander toward east Ukraine. On March 10, the Russian foreign ministry spoke of “lawlessness” in the east, perhaps setting the stage for future action there. Pro-Russian forces have already mobilized in eastern cities like Kharkiv and Luhansk and Donetsk, where demonstrators recently gathered at a statue of Vladimir Lenin to wave Russian flags and seize central thoroughfares. If Russia annexes Crimea, “it would be an absolute scandal,” says professor Umland. But if it moves into eastern Ukraine—still an unlikely possibility—it will surely herald war.

In a recent interview, Nina Khrushcheva—granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who gifted the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine in 1954—was asked what her grandfather would think of the Russian tanks now stationed in Crimea. “I think he would be disappointed,” she said, speaking of her grandfather’s love for Ukraine. “Of course, he knew about tanks himself when he sent them into Hungary in 1956 . Well, now it’s been 60 years, and we haven’t learned a better way.”