Crimea votes for schism as crisis risks loss of control

Tue, Mar 18, 2014, 01:00

The overwhelming illegal weekend vote in Crimea for secession – 97 per cent pro, on an ostensible 83 per cent turnout – takes the Ukraine crisis to a new level of instability and danger. It will also sharply increase the diplomatic and economic ostracisation of Russia.

The vote raises expectations in Crimea that Russia will accept it back into the fold – any attempt to re-establish Ukrainian rule would certainly now be met with force by local Russians, aided by Russian troops. There is almost now, like it or not, a fait accompli quality to Ukraine’s loss of Crimea, with its troops now being offered safe passage from their Crimean bases if they do not wish to serve Russia .

In the eastern Ukraine where at the weekend there were large pro-Russian protests in the cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk, emboldened Russians will press on in their violent attacks on symbols of Kiev’s authority in the hope of provoking an official backlash that could be used to justify Russian intervention to “protect Russian speakers”. Kiev’s continued restraint is to be commended.

And the vote has brought on the threatened sanctions from western countries against a limited number of political and military figures, and with them the danger of retaliatory measures on both sides spiralling up into all-out trade war. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans warned of the dangers ahead of the EU meeting in Brussels yesterday: “I would do anything possible to avoid sanctions, because I believe everybody will suffer if we get into sanctions,” he said. But there is no alternative, ministers agreed – threats to make Russia pay “a cost” for its breaches of international law are futile unless acted on.

What will Putin do? Ukraine is mobilising its reserves and sending tanks to the eastern border, but it would be fast overwhelmed in the nightmare scenario of a Russian invasion. Russia’s president knows, however, that such a course would result both in a prolonged and difficult military occupation and insurgent war, and in both a further sharp escalation of western sanctions and the heavy price the markets are forcing the rouble to pay for his actions.

Restricting himself to the formal reannexation of Crimea into Russia could limit that escalation, but it will also require him to manifest a new degree of pragmatism and conciliation with the government in Kiev which he has yet to recognise. Not least, he will have to engage in discussions with Kiev on the supplies of water, electricity, natural gas and other essentials on which Crimea depends. In his address today to a joint session of parliament it is crucial that Russia’s president begins to ease tensions by drawing a line in the sand setting out clearly the limits to his ambitions as Crimea, pointing to recognition of the new Kiev government, and to acceptance of a diplomatic contact group with whom Moscow can negotiate.

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