Kremlin on course to make Crimea an influential Russian thorn in Ukraine’s side

Analysis: having lost many levers of control over Kiev, Vladimir Putin is quickly grabbing new ones

US secretary of state John Kerry (front right) and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (front left) meet at the Russian ambassador’s residence in Paris yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

US secretary of state John Kerry (front right) and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (front left) meet at the Russian ambassador’s residence in Paris yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

 

Crimea is in limbo. Ukraine does not control it and Russia, whose troops and armour are all over the Black Sea peninsula, denies occupying it.

Moscow is obfuscating matters by insisting local “self-defence” volunteers have actually seized Crimea, and is likely to sow further confusion to destabilise Ukraine, to keep it tied to Russia, and to blunt the West’s response to what some are calling Europe’s worst crisis since the Cold War.

Now Russian president Vladimir Putin has a grip on Crimea – where his forces have been welcomed by much of the mostly ethnic-Russian population – he is unlikely to relinquish it.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Kremlin has played a major role in all territorial disputes on its former territory, including in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova.


‘Frozen conflicts’
All three countries are now bedevilled by “frozen conflicts” in which Russia is deeply involved: it props up separatist regimes in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia and in Moldova’s Transdniestria, and plays a self-interested role as simultaneous peace-broker and arms salesman to Armenia and Azerbaijan in their row over Nagorno-Karabakh.

As when he invaded Georgia in 2008, Putin now claims that Russian speakers and citizens are in danger in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine. That, despite Ukraine not confirming any serious ethnically motivated attack on a Russian during months of massive protests.

Thousands of Russian troops are now based in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Moscow recognises as independent states. Their presence, and the territorial divisions in Georgia, have hampered its push for Nato membership since tilting westward in the 2003 Rose Revolution. In Moldova, Transdniestria’s Moscow-backed leaders always seem to become more strident when the state tries to inch closer to the EU.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia are contiguous with Russia, but Putin has not sought to formally annexe them. Instead, he maintains them as troublesome thorns in Georgia’s side, to be pushed and pulled when Moscow wants to inflict pain on Tbilisi.

Some analysts believe he has similar plans for Crimea.

The new pro-Kremlin authorities in Crimea have called a referendum for March 30th on the question of boosting its autonomy. Gunmen were controlling the local parliament when it approved the referendum, and the vote is likely to be held under conditions of Russian occupation. Yet Moscow see the whole process as legitimate, and local politicians ask why they should follow any rules when a “fascist” revolution has just taken place in Kiev.


Looser ties
Russia will probably present the result of the vote as evidence that Crimeans want looser ties with Ukraine and feel unsafe under a new pro-western government that Moscow calls illegal. Crimea’s leaders may request long-term protection, and Russia could offer it: Moscow’s troops are already there and its Black Sea fleet has a lease on its base at Sevastopol until at least 2042.

In this way, Moscow could make Crimea another – much bigger – Abkhazia or South Ossetia, but without backing its separation from Ukraine.

The strategic peninsula, home to two million people including large ethnic-Ukrainian and Tatar minorities, would be controlled by pro-Kremlin politicians, backed by the Russian military, with the support of many, perhaps most, of its residents.

Kiev would have little choice but to accept the loss of control over its territory.

The EU and Nato would be loath to accept a new member with Russian troops on its soil. And Crimea’s leaders, obedient to Moscow, could threaten to secede entirely whenever the Kremlin disapproved of Kiev’s policies or sought to oust the Black Sea Fleet.

This is how Putin – having lost many levers of control over Ukraine with the recent ousting of a pro-Russian regime – is quickly grabbing new ones.

Russian analyst Ruslan Pukhov believes Putin will “strive to keep Crimea as part of Ukraine, but as a reinforced instrument of Russian influence over politics in Kiev – and a powerful example for pro-Russian populations in other regions.”

Crimea has long been “a direct avenue of Russian pressure on Ukraine, and also guaranteed almost a million ‘pro-Russian’ votes in Ukrainian elections, ensuring the dominance of the pro-Russian eastern half of the country over the nationalist western half,” Pukhov wrote in the New York Times .

As with the Georgian crisis, the West’s hands are tied as it seeks a tough and co-ordinated response.

Kiev will receive a major aid package to stabilise its finances, but the EU – like Ukraine itself – still depends on Russia for energy and will not risk major disruption to fuel supply. And Washington needs Moscow’s help to resolve problems in Syria, Iran and North Korea.

“A weaker and more de-stabilised Ukraine will continue zigzagging between East and West,” Pukhov wrote, “until the next cycle of tumultuous Ukrainian politics arrives.”

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