The revolution and ousting of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine in that past three months has highlighted the divide that still exists between Russia and Western Europe, even decades after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union. Most of the former Eastern Bloc and ex-Soviet European countires have already taken significant steps to integrate with Western Europe, joining NATO and the European Union. However, in Belarus and Ukraine, Russia and Putin still hold a great amount of influence. The past months in Ukraine have shown that that influence is at risk of slipping away. The ousting of the pro-Russian Yanukovych that occurred in a matter of days from protests escalating shocked a Russia that was sure of its influence over Ukraine.
The escalation of the pro-Western protests into a full coup sparked Russia’s current heavy-handed response and blatant aggression toward its neighbor. Much of the world has condemned Putin’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula, which quickly withered away what little international goodwill the Russian leader had gotten from the Sochi Olympics. However, there is a scant justification for Russia to be concerned about the Crimea. Unlike the rest of Ukraine, the Crimean peninsula has an ethnic Russian majority. The peninsula was also administratively tied with Moscow for centuries even going into the years of the Soviet Union. Crimea was only transferred from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Russia has legitimate strategic concerns in the region as well. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is based in Sevastopol on the peninsula, under an agreement with the Ukrainian government ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. A serious move by Ukraine to enter NATO or the European Union could jeopardize that agreement.
Despite these minimal justifications, Putin and Russia clearly overreacted in their unwarranted occupation of the Crimea. Putin has a history of heavy handed action such as these. In 2008, Russia sent troops into the neighboring Republic of Georgia to prop up the separatist governments in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Now, he is doing the same thing in Crimea, but urging the region to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. After the Russian occupation, the autonomous Crimean parliament and the Sevastopol city council announced a referendum to be held on March 16 on joining Russia. Under normal circumstances, this could be a valid referendum, since there has been some separatist sentiment in the region in the past. If conducted with international observation, a referendum like this could be a good thing. But the current situation with the referendum being announced after the Russian occupation and with no intent on having international observers, it is completely invalid. As the situation stands, there are valid comparisons to Adolf Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria through a thinly veiled referendum in that country in 1938.
Now, as Russia tightens its grip on the Crimean peninsula and tensions between NATO countries and Russia simmer, the question becomes what are the potential outcomes? Both sides likely want to avoid an escalation of the crisis into a full scale war. However, if the NATO countries do nothing, it would only embolden Putin and other world leaders for future invasions, so some significant reaction by NATO is necessary. So far, the United States and other western European counties have agreed to provide billions of dollars in financial backing to the new government in Kiev. There have also been preliminary diplomatic talks, but so far those have gone nowhere. Making matters more complicated is Russia’s continued insistence that they have no control over the forces currently occupying Crimea. The US and the European Union have issues sanctions on several former members of Viktor Yanukovych’s government and are mulling sanctions against Russian officials. A pending G8 summit that was to be held in Sochi in June was cancelled, and some members of the group of the world’s largest economies have threatened to kick Russia out of the group and reduce it to a G7. In the past days, NATO has also begun small military operations, with reconnaissance planes patrolling the Polish and Romanian borders with Ukraine.
The situation has been changing rapidly so there could still be significant developments before the Crimean referendum on March 16. As things stand right now though, it doesn’t look like there will be any resolution of the crisis in the near future. Russia’s continuing denial of a role in the occupation of Crimea and its delusions about the geopolitical reality of the situation are hampering any start of discussion on the crisis. While NATO could be more proactive in providing military support to the new Ukrainian government, it needs to tread carefully. Russia has already lost any chance of getting the international community to accept a referendum in Crimea as legitimate, so now they may be gambling for a full restoration of a pro-Russian government in Ukraine. A worst case scenario would certainly be a shooting war between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, but that seems unlikely. Hopefully the crisis can be resolved peacefully, but not until Russia accepts the notion that it needs to be a willing participant in international dialogue and can’t bully around its neighbors anymore. The reality is that the Cold War is over, and Russia needs to accept that.