Reaching for a deal on Crimea

March 19, 2014

There is a disturbing air of inevitability in Western capitals surrounding Russia’s annexation of Crimea. A growing consensus views this scenario as a rough analogy to  Moscow’s recognition of Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after the 2008 war — perhaps more severe, but still manageable.

Such complacency is misplaced, however. The consequences of the annexation of Crimea are not manageable. The moral high ground we currently occupy isn’t worth it.

Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s triumphalist speech on Tuesday, the United States and the European Union should not assume that Crimea is lost. Instead they should be working overtime to prevent annexation.

The odds are stacked strongly against this, but the alternative is so dire that every effort must be made immediately to make it happen. This means going beyond sanctions and reassurance from the U.S. to its East European allies — important steps, but not effective in the short term. The West instead needs to focus on negotiating with Moscow to stop or reverse the annexation — even if that means dealing in Putin’s objectionable terms.

If it were only about Crimea, this crisis might be manageable. Annexation of the peninsula would provide Russia with the security of controlling the fate of its Black Sea Fleet, perhaps limiting its perceived need to meddle in Ukrainian politics.

Let’s not forget that Crimea is genuinely different from other parts of Ukraine. It is the only province with a majority Russian population, the only region granted autonomous status and it became part of Soviet Ukraine through Nikita Khrushchev’s arbitrary goodwill gesture. Its ties to Ukraine are thin and easily broken. Other cases like Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Kosovo did not destroy the international order.

But Russian annexation of Crimea is likely to initiate a pernicious cascade within Ukraine and further deepen the conflict. It is not a stable end-point for the crisis. With Russia’s recognition of the Crimean referendum, two mutually-destructive processes are being set in motion.

First, the annexation of Crimea tips the balance within Ukraine, further weakening the political base of the Russian-speaking populations of the East and South and increasing their incentives to pull away from Kiev. Crimea provides a demonstration of how this can be done and the lesson has not been lost on pro-Russian protesters in the East. They have already seized buildings, blocked tank movements and resisted the new Kiev government in other ways.

Setting aside the terrible precedent that the Crimean annexation sets for the world (consider the millions of ethnic Chinese living outside China’s current borders), it represents a powerful example within Ukraine.

Second, the fear of losing more territory to the Russian enemy — and the West’s seeming unwillingness to stop it — is likely to make the Kiev government even more reluctant to make needed concessions on self-governance to the East and South. Indeed, a war footing may push Kiev toward actions that will further fracture the country.

In the wake of the Crimea referendum, Ukraine’s acting President Oleksander Turchinov is arming a new “national guard” to defend the country from “extremists from within and from outside.” A rapid increase in the number of armed irregulars — disproportionately from Ukraine’s center and West — might make sense for a country with a paltry army facing an external threat. But it risks unleashing undisciplined armed groups on Ukrainian soil.  This could actually precipitate, rather than deter, further Russian incursions.

Even if Moscow is only interested in Crimea now, the annexation might cascade into further seizures of Ukrainian territory. Crimea receives 80 percent of its water from mainland Ukraine, along with much of its electricity, heating fuel and telecommunication links. Russia has no direct land-based access to Crimea.

If the crisis escalates to a point where Ukraine decides to cut off Crimea — which cannot be ruled out if annexation proceeds — the Russian military may respond by seizing more territory.

In addition, Russia uses a corridor through southeastern Ukraine for access to its forces stationed in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria province. Any steps by Kiev to shut down Russian access there could also lead to further incursions.

There may be a way out — even if it is a long shot. On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov proposed a deal to Secretary of State John Kerry at their meeting in London. His proposal included disbanding irregular armed groups; a new Ukrainian constitution that enshrines federalism, elected governors, official status for the Russian language, Ukrainian neutrality (backed by a U.N. Security Council affirmation) and respect for results of the Crimea referendum.

This was objectionable on several levels. But it indicates that Russia has priorities in Ukraine besides grabbing Crimea.

The West has not tested whether Lavrov’s offer is the basis for an actual deal to prevent the catastrophe of annexation. The United States, European Union and the current Ukrainian government could offer Russia everything on its wish list except for Crimea, in return for stopping and reversing the annexation process.

Although Putin’s speech to parliament Tuesday could have made Friday’s offer moot, the Russian penchant for formal legal procedures provides at least a few days before annexation is complete.

So far, the West has refused to engage on Russia’s terms. A U.S. official told reporters that Moscow would have to negotiate directly with the Ukrainian government, which the Kremlin refuses to recognize as legitimate. “The days are long past,” the official stated, “when great powers meet and make decisions about countries over the heads of the people of those countries.”

This principle has guided Western policy on Russia’s neighbors since the Soviet collapse, and rightly so. But the circumstances are so dire that we should not be doing business as usual.

Barring a highly unlikely military intervention by NATO, it is Russia, not the West, that holds the fate of Ukraine in its hands now. The stakes are too high and Western leverage is now too weak to stand on principle. If the West has any chance of keeping Ukraine whole by offering concessions it would not even countenance under other circumstances — such as formally committing to Ukraine’s neutrality — it should do so immediately.


PHOTO (TOP): Russia’s President Vladimir Putin walks in before addressing the Federal Assembly, including State Duma deputies, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and civil society representatives, at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool

PHOTO (INSERT ): A Ukrainian soldier seated on top of an armored personnel carrier at a checkpoint near the village of Salkovo in Kherson region, adjacent to Crimea, March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

PHOTO (INSERT): Secretary of State John Kerry, trailed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, ascends the steps of the Russian ambassador’s residence for their meeting in Paris, March 5, 2014. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque


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Until the EU has a credible army and will, Russia can do what it wants. The EU has no central means of mobilization it depends on member states to do it. But EU rules limit deficits. EU has free trade between states which means any member state that has big taxes to pay for big Army losses big time in trade. EU has free movement of people so military draft dodgers can move. In short the EU cannot mobilize to present a treat to Russia’s next move. Even with 500 million people to Russia’s 146 and many time the GDP.

It should lay low until that changes.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

Military mobilization against a teat requires central control of the economy including high taxes, control of trade and limiting the ability of draft dodgers to move out. The EU’s rules and very idea work against that. The USA has lost the will to act like that.

Therefore, The EU should lay low against Russia and USA should lay low against China. The hot air may make Russia and China made and there nothing to stop them.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

Military mobilization against a treat requires central control of the economy including high taxes, control of trade and limiting the ability of draft dodgers to move out. The EU’s rules and very idea work against that. The USA has lost the will to act like that.

Therefore, The EU should lay low against Russia and USA should lay low against China. The hot air may make Russia and China made and there nothing to stop them.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

Welcome to the real world. There really are bad guys with big armies. Neither the EU or the USA has the will to mobilize in response. The free trade treaties, low tax philosophy and low deficit rules in vogue means no central control needed for military mobilization.

Hot air may make China and Russia mad. Lay low.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

Russia has to much leverage we can do nothing about Crimea. Russia has too much leverage.We can do nothing about Eastern Ukriane. Russia has too much leverage.We can do nothing about Lithuania.

Where does this logic lead you?

Posted by SAlbert1 | Report as abusive

Crimea was and is essentially Russian land whose population has recently democratically and freely voted for the unification with Russia. Russia quite rightly will never surrender Crimea back to Ukraine. Case closed, merry gentlemen, case closed!

Posted by Denouncer | Report as abusive

please excuse my typos

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

I hope you know what you mean because I certainly cannot understand your gibberish.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

I concur.
@lkofenglish is writing pure nonsense.

Posted by Denouncer | Report as abusive

@Benny27, who is talking about armed conflict with Russia? Opposite force and strength does not mean necessarily military war. It foremost means the united, strong, coordinated and proactive rather than reactive actions. If partners like US and EU, and the member states within the EU cannot agree with each other, what strength are we talking about? You need to realize that it is not about fighting for “us”, it is for fighting for “your own interests”. Or you want to say that what is done in Ukraine does not affect your interests? Yesterday it was Georgia, today it is Ukraine, tomorrow it will be Moldova, Baltics, Eastern Europe. This has already been proved. In any compromise between good and evil it is always evil that benefits. I think it is already a very proper time to understand this and act accordingly. You tell me to get real, but I think it is you living in illusions that ignoring the wrongdoer will keep you safe.

Posted by TKochoradze | Report as abusive

Russia gets Crimea. NATO gets Ukraine. Done deal.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive