Annexing Crimea is against Russia’s interests

March 17, 2014

Having invaded Crimea, set up a puppet government and organised a sham referendum, now Vladimir Putin will have to facilitate the region’s accession to Russia. There is little doubt this is going to happen swiftly. Any different reaction to yesterday’s clear, if unfair, results, will seem much too cynical even to Russians, who now — thanks to the lies seen on television —overwhelmingly believe that Putin is fighting to save Russian-speakers in Ukraine, put in real danger by the ‘fascists in Kiev’. The accession has, of course, been planned by the Kremlin — but it is hard to comprehend why. 


From the beginning, Russia’s primary interest has been to maintain the ability to influence Ukraine’s choices. In the new situation the Maidan has created, it could have done this precisely through Crimea. The region’s over 1 million-strong ethnic Russian population has had countless ties to Russia even before Russian soldiers appeared everywhere. They were an active pro-Russian political force in Ukraine. Staying there, they could have, if not determined the future of the country, but, always with a pro-Russian regional government, had a strong voice in it.


Meanwhile, as many observe, Russia’s Sevastopol naval base would have guaranteed that Ukraine does not join NATO — this would be impermissible under NATO regulations. Without Crimea, Ukraine is free to do as it wishes. Considering the resentment the annexation of Crimea will cause in much of Ukraine, it is likely the pro-European sentiment will be strengthened, resulting in closer integration with Europe and maybe with NATO — a prospect Putin dreads.


The loss is clear — but what are the gains? Surely a part of Russian history, Crimea might be a part of Russian identity, too. That it went with Ukraine in 1991 perhaps caused indignation to some, but made little difference in practical terms; Russians have continued to freely travel and live there. The size of oil and gas reserves off the Crimean coast are uncertain — it seems that, if Russia’s seeking further natural resources, it has better places to look. 


It is true, the loss of the Sevastopol base would amount to a strategic tragedy. But it was never under threat. Ukraine’s new government has an obvious, and articulate, interest in maintaining amicable relations with Russia; cancelling the lease would have been a serious diplomatic faux pas. This government is, of course, not insusceptible to such steps, as demonstrated by the controversial language legislation, which was quickly repealed in the midst of international uproar. But they are not fascists after all. They would never have spat Russia in the face by cancelling the contract. 


Annexing Crimea, Russia has in fact given up the rest of Ukraine for good. Unless this is not the end of the story — though a similar course of action in Eastern Ukraine is unlikely. The threat is clear: 60 000 Russian troops have reportedly gathered in the border areas. But everyone knows that, if Ukraine could be taken by surprise, in a moment of chaos, in Crimea, that is not the case now; they are sure to resist. And no-one, not even the NTV’s millions, want a war with their Ukrainian ‘brothers’. 


Putin has reached the limit internationally, too. The West’s response, slow and half-hearted, of naming-and-shaming, travel bans and asset freezes, will not hurt Russia badly. But, should Russia push into Eastern Ukraine, the EU and the US can be reasonably expected to act on their promise and launch serious economic sanctions. Russia cannot afford even the risk. 


The only reasonable explanation for Russia’s Crimean adventure involves a combination of political revanchism and projection of power. Putin could not let the Maidan win a full victory: take control, launch an agenda of economic reform and a fight against corruption, and set the country on the course of European integration. This would have proven Russia’s and his weakness. It could have had a spillover effect in Russia — a nightmare for Putin ever since Ukraine’s Orange revolution. By annexing Crimea, he shows that turning your back to Russia cannot go unpunished. He shows that Russia can still defend its interests in its ‘near abroad’.


Even if it is against all its interests. 

Follow me on Twitter @radnotiandras
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