Few doubt result of Ukraine referendum
Opinion: Putin does not do turning back
‘The bald facts are that Crimea will never return to full Ukrainian sovereignty; the West has no intention of getting militarily involved and the Ukraine military forces are dwarfed by the Russian.’ Above, Ukrainian navy sailors stand guard on top of the Ukrainian navy command ship Slavutych at the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Photograph: Reuters/Baz Ratner
A few days ago I watched with mixed horror and fascination a TV clip from Australia of a python asphyxiating then devouring a crocodile. Something of the same kind may be happening to Ukraine. Except in this case some parts of the crocodile are being devoured willingly, enthusiastically even. Nor should we be surprised at recent events if we attempt to look at them through Russian eyes. For Ukraine is no ordinary “foreign” country to Russia. It is the very heartland from which Russia – Kievan Rus – sprang, and from which the Orthodox religion came. Their fortunes have been intertwined for centuries; Ukraine only became independent 23 years ago after the dissolution of the Soviet Union; and Crimea which is now under de facto Russian control had been part of Russia since Catherine the Great’s time in 1783 until given to Ukraine in 1954 by the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, himself Ukrainian, despite the fact that 60 per cent of the population of Crimea was Russian. The new pro-Russian administration in Crimea has called a referendum to decide the peninsula’s future. Few people doubt that the result, massaged by the presence of thousands of Russian soldiers, will be decisively in favour of joining Russia.
The bald facts are that Crimea will never return to full Ukrainian sovereignty; the West has no intention of getting militarily involved and the Ukraine military forces are dwarfed by the Russian. Moreover the EU is hopelessly divided, unable to agree on anything but the most pitiful sanctions. It sent three foreign ministers to mediate between the democratically elected President Yanukovych and the street demonstrators and successfully brokered an agreement involving early elections. Yet faced with a hostile street reaction, the EU disavowed it. So we now have the bizarre spectacle of the EU and US supporting an interim government in Kiev which has no democratic mandate while denouncing Yanukovych, admittedly ruthless and corrupt, but open to be removed by elections not by mob rule.
Crimea’s referendum gets short shrift from the West. It will, they say, be illegal. Yet Kosovo was allowed to secede from Serbia and to be recognised by most Western countries despite a UN Security Council Resolution guaranteeing the territorial integrity of the state. And if Scotland is allowed to vote to secede from the UK, why not Crimea? Here we are in the grey area of territorial integrity versus self-determination, a particularly neuralgic point for Ireland since the 1920 partition of the island. But Crimea would appear to have a reasonable case for being allowed to vote to secede given the fears, admittedly heightened by Moscow’s propaganda, of the anti-Russian interim government which has emerged in Kiev (even voting, through legislation to ban Russian as an official language).
Western politicians talk tough: there will, we are told be, costs and consequences (for Russia). But given Ukraine’s desperate need for a large EU cash injection to stay afloat and European energy dependency on Russia, it’s fairly clear that it will be Europe which will bear the brunt of the pain, particularly in the short term.
Rather than issuing largely empty threats and dire warnings, the West needs to persuade the Kiev authorities to form a broadly-based government reflecting the interests of the Orthodox largely pro-Russian east as well as the pro-EU Westerners who now dominate in Kiev. It might then be able to establish some special status for Crimea which offered some fig leaf of Ukrainian sovereignty but effectively gave Russia some form of suzerainty over them. For Ukraine to survive as a stable prosperous country, reconciling such disparate peoples, it will need Janus-like to face both East and West, co-operating not confronting. The alternative will be a Syrian situation. Given its short history, it is not perhaps surprising that Ukrainian politicians have been such failures and so little inclined to share power between East and West. Northern Ireland’s bleak 30-year-old Troubles have lessons to teach about the merits of power sharing, even when you have no warm feelings or affection for your co-nationals.
For Putin, the prospects of international isolation are unintended but not intolerable. In any event, Putin does not do turning back. A red line has been crossed and, unlike Obama, Putin sticks to them. However illogically and emotionally he blames the West (the EU and Nato) which he believes saw Ukraine as a zero sum game where Ukraine had to decide between East and West with the prospect of the latter choice in the shape of close economic and trade agreements with the EU and an open invitation to join Nato. Russian paranoia did the rest. And of course, those who never believed that the end of communism would bring a liberal democracy to Russia are right. Putin presides over a demokratura; it has the trappings of a democracy but is run by a Communist-light nomenklatura. It also has some of the traditional Russian fears of encirclement. A non-benign or antagonistic Ukraine is intolerable.
If no fudge on Crimea’s status can be reached, then, to satisfy public opinion, Western politicians will impose visa bans and freeze what assets they can. But there is a strong probability that after a while, because Russia is the biggest country on the planet and in the same way that Tiananmen Square is now a distant memory given the economic importance of China, all will be swept under the carpet, if not forgiven. It’s called Realpolitik.
Sir Ivor Roberts, president of Trinity College, Oxford, was British ambassador to Ireland from 1999 to 2003