Reaching for a deal on Crimea
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