Ukraine, Crimea and Russia - Part 1


March 21, 2014
A woman casts her ballot at a polling station during the Crimean referendum, in Sevastopol, Ukraine, Sunday, March 16, 2014. Residents of Ukraine's Crimea region are voting in a contentious referendum on whether to split off and seek annexation by Russia. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

Developments in Ukraine, and between Crimea and Russia, have been causing great anxiety among international observers. To learn more about this situation, CIGI presents a two-part interview. This week, we speak to Global Security & Politics Research Assistant Simon Palamar. Look forward to next week’s analysis with CIGI Research Associate Skylar Brooks on the global economic dimensions of this situation.

CIGI: What do these developments between Crimea and Russia mean for subsequent cases of secession (and annexation)? Do you think any new type of international precedent is being set?

Simon Palamar: This is an interesting question, especially when you listen to how the Kremlin has tried to frame the conflict. President Vladimir Putin has claimed that the March 17 referendum was conducted in accordance with basic democratic values, procedures and so forth. In other words, there’s no precedent, because everything that happened was the Crimean people’s natural reaction to the strife in Kiev and the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, and Russia did not interfere in Ukraine’s affairs. Putin also cited Kosovo’s secession from Serbia as a sort of “precedent,” trying to make the case that Russia and Crimea’s separatists did nothing new or unusual.

Now, of course, there’s the Kremlin’s narrative, and then there are the facts on the ground. I believe that when Putin saw the new Ukrainian government, he saw an opportunity. Crimea has a large number of ethnic Russians, and there have been separatist and irredentist movements in Crimea since Ukraine left the Soviet Union. Maintaining control of the port in Sevastopol is crucial for the Kremlin’s long-term foreign policy objectives, as it allows Moscow to project power into the Mediterranean. With important interests on the line, a nucleus of a pro-Russian irredentist movement and a disoriented new government grappling with a broader economic crisis used armed force to cut off Crimea from the rest of the country, while pro-Russian civilians overthrew the parliament in Simferopol and marginalized pro-Kiev politicians made sense.

So far, this looks like a classic political power play. Countries have carved off pieces of each other’s territory before. What is somewhat unique about this case is the rapidity and the relatively minimal violence (thus far). Generally, secession and annexation take much longer. There were, after all, no negotiations between the Simferopol separatists and the government in Kiev.

CIGI: It’s reported that the United States will meet with its G7 allies on the margins of the nuclear security summit to discuss the situation in Crimea. Indeed, much media attention has been given to the “G” institutions, but in your opinion, what does this crisis mean for NATO’s relevance in Europe? Will it prove to be a re-emergence of relevance or inconsequential?

Palamar: I suspect that if the invasion of Crimea does not reinvigorate NATO, then the alliance is really going to struggle to remain relevant. We need to recall that NATO now includes countries that suffered tremendously under Soviet rule or as Soviet satellite states. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all NATO members. Estonia and Latvia also both share a border with Russia and have large Russian minority populations. And all three countries have had tense relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War. Lithuanian authorities claim that the Russian government has already forbidden imports from the country’s principal port facility, which they believe is punishment for Vilnius’ political support for Kiev. Analysts also widely believe that the Russian government was behind the 2007 cyber attacks that briefly disrupted Estonian government and private sector websites.

Poland also harbours concerns about Putin’s broader foreign policy goals in Eastern Europe, given the history of communist Poland. We have already seen the Polish government make a renewed push to establish a joint Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade. While the brigade was originally conceived as primarily a peacekeeping force, the project takes on new significance in light of the Crimean annexation.

We have also seen strong growth in the defence budgets of the Baltic states and Poland in recent years, at a time when many other NATO defence budgets are either flat or shrinking.

The bottom line is that some of NATO’s Eastern European members still consider the Kremlin a potential military threat, and Russia’s invasion of Crimea is going to reinforce that view. Since NATO’s raison d’etre is to maintain peace and security and the territorial integrity of its members, the alliance as a whole needs to pay attention when some of its members are concerned. That does not mean that Warsaw or Talinn should direct NATO policy, but if some NATO members place their economic interests before other members’ hard security interests, this will harm the alliance in the long run. Therefore, it’s not surprising to see Poland and Lithuania take steps outside of NATO to strengthen their eastern borders and reinforce their relationship with Kiev.

CIGI: Do you think this crisis will have a defining moment in post-Cold War relations between East and West? What further action do you think might unfold among countries surrounding the Black Sea?

Palamar: Let me hedge my bets here by saying it’s too soon to tell! That being said, there are good reasons to suspect that the Crimean annexation could reverberate around the region.

First, we have to look at Turkish foreign policy. Turkish Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdoğan has worked very hard to re-establish Turkey as a major player in the Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asia. Increasingly, however, we are seeing that Turkey and Russia are on opposite sides of several recent major foreign policy events in the Middle East. Erdoğan was one of the first world leaders to call for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down, and Turkey allowed the Free Syrian Army safe harbour in its territory. Vladimir Putin, has of course, been one of al-Assad’s staunchest defenders. In Egypt, Russia welcomed the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi by the Egyptian military, and Putin has praised Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (who seems to be planning to run for Egypt’s presidency), while Turkey described the overthrow as a coup. Relations between Cairo and Ankara warmed considerably under Morsi’s presidency, and they have accordingly chilled since he was deposed. So Erdoğan’s foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbours” has run into a major roadblock in the form of Russia, and there’s reason to suspect that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is only going to cause additional problems in the relationship. Turkey, under the Justice and Development Party, has positioned itself as a champion of Muslims in Europe’s periphery. Turkey hosts a Crimean Tatar diaspora, and the Turkish government has pledged to support Crimea’s Tatars. Rumors are circulating that Prime Minister Erdoğan telephoned President Putin to inform him that Turkey could restrict the passage of Russian ships through the Bosphorous if Crimea’s Tatar population came under threat. If the rumor is even true, we are still far away from Turkey taking such stern measures (though the Moscow Times has already reported that Crimean authorities are telling some Tatars that they will have to give up their properties and will be compensated with property elsewhere in Crimea), but I expect the Turkish government is taking a close look at their relationship with Moscow right now.   

In the Caucasus, we should also expect to see some reaction. Georgia is set to sign an association agreement with the European Union this year. Georgia has already been through its own version of a Crimean crisis: we should all recall the brief war between Georgia and Russia in 2008 which led to South Ossetia declaring independence from Tblisi (Abkhazia, a Georgian province on the Black Sea coast had declared its independence years earlier). A renewed push to get Georgia into NATO would not be surprising.

Moldova is also set to sign an association agreement with the EU. It also has a Russian-majority breakaway province — Transnistria — and Russian leaders there have already called for accession to Russia (though this isn’t the first time they’ve done so). Moldovan authorities are certainly going to approach the next few months carefully.

Armenia and Azerbaijan are also part of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP), and have declined to sign association agreements, as just in the Ukrainian case, Russia has held that membership in both a free trade agreement with the EU and the Eurasian Customs Union would be incompatible.

The backdrop of all of this is the EU’s policy towards Eastern Europe. In February, while the maidan protests were raging in Kiev, Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt presented two proposals to their EU counterparts arguing for a more active and assertive EU effort to get EaP countries to sign association agreements. Bildt suggested public diplomacy and information campaigns to counter any disinformation campaigns waged by other countries, and Sikorski pushed for an increase in funding (and the speed at which its rolled out) to EaP countries to help them adjust to the costs of bringing their regulations into line with the EU. Both of these proposals would be good starts, and Poland’s push to increase aid to help with adjustment costs is probably essential. After all, Yanukovych declined to sign the association agreement in part because of the economic risks posed by a simultaneous increase in competition from EU businesses, and a loss of access to Russian markets.

Arguably, the EU did not take the former Ukrainian government’s concerns seriously enough, and when Russia offered Kiev a US$15 billion aid package, Moscow’s offer simply made more sense than Brussels’. A reinvigorated, serious and tough EU that demonstrates that it is willing to look after the interests of its prospective partners is crucial if it wishes to extend its influence further into Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. Otherwise, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan risk getting stuck between a disinterested Europe, and a Putin administration that is willing to take direct measures to protects its interests.

CIGI: Any final thoughts?

Palamar: I think it’s important to remember that the world does not begin and end in Washington, or London, Berlin or New York. If the Western alliance doesn’t respond to events or the UN remains deadlocked, we shouldn’t expect others, who feel their interests are threatened by these recent events, to stand still. If the West fails to react, other capitals are going to do what is within their power to protect themselves and their interests.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.