Tensions between the Western World and Russia aren’t anything particularly new, with a brief friendship in the 90s being the only time since World War II where both have been on the same side. However, the current political and now military turmoil in Crimea is perhaps one of the most worrying developments in decades.
Ukraine is a massively important country geopolitically – for both Russia and Europe. It is the largest gateway between the two for oil and gas exports. Ukraine is from where the vast majority of the UK’s Russian imported gas flows through. Crimea is a peninsula nested at the south of Ukraine, and almost connected by land to Russia as well. The predominant ethnicity of the area is Russian, and the peninsula always belonged to Russia until Boris Yeltsen, the first President of post-Soviet Russia, gave jurisdiction of the peninsula to Ukraine as an “act of friendship”. That friendship has deteriorated to the point where Vladimir Putin has not only demanded but forcefully taken that gift back.
Russia’s rhetoric regarding their annexation of Crimea has almost entirely centred around the idea of protecting ethnic Russians from the dangers of the new, more nationalist, Ukrainian government. The new government swept to power last month after months of protest against former President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to scrap talks aimed at joining the European Union in favour of a “closer relationship” with Russia. Most Ukrainians would prefer to be more economically and socially linked with Europe – although Russia sees that as dangerous to them, losing out on a nation with which they have significant trade links already and a great deal of political leverage. Today’s announcement that the interim Ukrainian government and the EU have signed an “association deal” adds further to Russia’s paranoia.
Russia’s invasion of Crimea may be under the banner of saving the Russian population there, but it is almost certainly to serve the interests of the entire state. Russia leased navy bases in Sevastopol in Crimea after handing it over to Ukraine, as it is the only suitable location on the Black Sea to house a sizeable fleet. Without these bases in Crimea, the Russian navy would need to be based in either the Baltic Sea, with Scandinavia controlling the bulk of waters going towards the Atlantic, or in the far north of the country, where the treacherous Arctic Ocean would need to be traversed. Both Baltic and Arctic ports are also completely at the mercy of the weather during winter with both seas prone to freezing. Having control of ports in Crimea is so important to Russia that they are willing to go to war over it. Because Russia believes their ports in Crimea were under threat of being seized, or their lease of the ports being ended, they have invaded to protect their own military interests. This is the crucial reason why the events of the last month have unfolded in the way they have. Should Russia believe that they should also invade the ethnically Russian western third of Ukraine as a military move to save their Crimean bases from attack then the situation will almost surely turn into war.
Russia will not accept any claims that what they are doing is against international law, despite such statements being made by European leaders such as Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande. They believe they are acting with stronger and more acceptable motives than America and the “coalition of the willing” did in invading Iraq in 2003. Russia has invaded countries before to gain influence over them, of course – with Soviet-era examples of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan and a remarkably similar situation in Georgia over the sovereignty of South Ossetia where around 800 people were killed. That war lasted 8 days in August of 2008, but showed that Russia has no qualms with launching airstrikes, setting up naval blockades and using lethal force to protect what they believe should be the legitimate government of the region. In that case Russia was fighting on behalf of the independence of the Republic of South Ossetia; this time it’s for its’ own territory. The stakes are higher in the current conflict than they were then.
The worrying thing is that there does not appear to be an easy solution to this crisis. Neither the new Ukrainian government nor the Russians appear eager to engage in dialogue – with Russia refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the new government and Ukraine refusing to accept the secession of Crimea. Already there have been deaths of Ukrainian soldiers from small skirmishes resulting from the storming of Ukrainian military installations in the region. The death toll could escalate as Ukraine’s new Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has reportedly authorised his military to fire in retaliation should such attacks happen again. Should Russian soldiers fall in the defence of what they now consider to be their territory, there will be a far stronger response from Moscow towards the rest of Ukraine than there has been at the moment. Ukraine is on the brink of war.
The United Nations, EU and NATO have all roundly condemned the actions of Russia in Crimea but all are toothless to act in any real manner to defend Ukraine from Russian aggression. The United Nations Security Council drafted a resolution to criticise Russia for their invasion, but it was of course vetoed by the Russians who wield a permanent seat on the Council. Neither the EU nor NATO has any jurisdiction over Ukraine or Russia. It would be economic suicide to attack Russia with major trade sanctions, other than the current travel bans they have placed on top Russian ministers, which Russia could respond to by halting oil and gas exports and any military action is clearly off the table against a nuclear weapon armed former superpower.
So what we have in Crimea is a situation that will likely get worse before it gets any better, and has the worst-case scenario potential to create the first real land war in Eastern Europe since World War II. There are no mechanisms at the moment to get both parties together to mediate the conflict – as neither accepts the legitimacy of the other in holding Crimea. Both sides have readily accepted that the impasse may be solved through military action. It’s going to take a diplomatic masterstroke to defuse the tension in the Black Sea.
It’s still early days yet, I fear, in the story of the current Crimea crisis.