Nicholas Wapshott

Crimea: Too small to matter

By Nicholas Wapshott
April 1, 2014

Crimea is permanently lost to Russia.

That is implicit in President Barack Obama’s remarks about where the Ukraine crisis heads next; the terms of the Paris talks between Secretary of State John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the West’s rejection of military action to hurl back the occupying Russian forces.

That Crimea is gone forever is also the view of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who declared, “I do not believe that Crimea will slip out of Russia’s hand.”

It is now generally accepted in Washington that short of sparking a shooting war, Crimea is lost and will now always be Russian. President Vladimir Putin, presiding over an economy of $2 trillion, barely equal to California, has roundly defeated the United States and the European Union, with a combined worth of more than $34 trillion.

The loss of Crimea is a considerable blow to U.S. prestige and confirmation that Obama holds a weak hand in Ukraine, a country everyone agrees is too hard to defend from Russian aggression. But why has Obama’s response to Russia’s stealth invasion of Crimea been so muted? Where is the simple demand: “Mr. Putin, order your troops out of Crimea”?

Why is keeping Russia out of eastern Ukraine — rather than the swift return of Crimea to Ukraine — not the core of the Paris talks? Why are economic sanctions limited to a small number of Putin cronies and not applied to the entire population?

Why have the Crimeans been sacrificed? One quick answer is that Americans are not prepared to defend them. According to a recent poll, though two-thirds (66 percent) of Americans think the president has not been tough enough with Putin, with just 11 percent thinking he is handling Russia just right, a majority (53 percent) thinks the United States should not counter the threats to Ukraine. Half of Americans believe Crimea can only be wrested from Russia through military force, but there appears no appetite for sending troops, or even military aid, to Ukraine.

There are, however, larger forces at work here. Obama needs Putin’s continuing support in three pivotal geopolitical conflicts. The first is Afghanistan. After 12 years of occupation and 2,211 U.S. lives lost, America is on the point of withdrawing its final 33,000 troops from the country that once harbored the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked America.

The U.S. forces there, and the nascent Afghan security forces, are being and will continue to be supplied from the United States via a long overland route, known as the Northern Distribution Network, through Russia and territories allied to Russia — Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. To further complicate matters, some important arms contracts to bolster Afghanistan’s frail army against a resurgent Taliban, including a $1 billion contract to buy helicopters, have been placed with Russian companies.

A war between the West and Russia, or even a full-scale sanctions regime, would abruptly cut that essential supply line, putting in jeopardy the fragile achievements of the 12-year Western occupation.

Never mind that if Afghanistan were to return to Taliban rule, it would harbor Islamist terrorists who would try to wrest Islamic Russian republics from the Russian federation. Putin feels that snatching Crimea and invoking the wrath of the West is worth the gamble. He is guessing — correctly thus far — that the United  States and the European Union will shrug and do nothing.

Then there are the U.S.-led Western sanctions against the Islamist masters of Iran, who are believed to be seeking to build nuclear weapons and whose constant bellicose threats toward Israel suggest that if they manage to build nukes they will use them on the Jewish state. With Russian help, Iran has been tempted to the negotiating table.

Crimea has put those talks in jeopardy. The Russian deputy foreign minister has made clear that, if the West steps up its sanctions against Russia or Russian individuals to win back Crimea, Russia will withdraw its support for the Iran nuclear disarmament talks and help Iran dodge the tight Western sanctions regime that has forced the mullahs to start talking.

Again, there are many good reasons why it suits Russia to continue with the talks — not least that it does not want a new nuclear power on its southern doorstep. But it appears sentiment rather than realpolitik inspires the Kremlin.

Putin is gambling that Obama is under such domestic pressure to stay out of another war and halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions that Russia can both remain at the Iran talks and keep Crimea. Crimea is therefore the price for trying to disarm Iran.

The third U.S. foreign policy goal Russia is helping with is mediating in the Syrian civil war. After Obama blinked and Congress showed its lack of appetite for intervening militarily in Syria, Putin stepped up and forged a compromise with its longtime ally, in which President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime would hand over the chemical weapons it had been using to kill its own people.

Since then, though Russia has soft pedaled and allowed Syria to slow the pace of destruction of its poison gas and other weapons of mass destruction, Washington has been beholden to Moscow to keep the program on track. The story of Syrian disarmament so far has been one of deception and delays. But the prospect of Russia withdrawing its support for the United Nations effort and even further bolstering the Syrian regime with arms would be a profound setback for Obama’s efforts to bring peace and stability in the Middle East. Putin thinks the world owes him Crimea for doing the right thing in Syria.

So after 50 years as a province of Ukraine, first under the Soviets then an independent Ukraine, Crimea is once again a part of Russia. Even Putin’s successors will not wish to hand over land that has been such a bone of contention between Russia and the West.

Crimea is the price Putin has put on cooperating with Obama. And he may still demand more. But is the sacrifice of Crimea worth it?

Consider Tibet, an independent nation that the Chinese Communists annexed by force in 1950. For more than 60 years the Tibetan people have been subjugated and their natural resources plundered.

As with Crimea, Tibet was a country too far away and of insufficient importance to be saved from annexation. To have continued to demand the freedom of Tibet would have put at risk the settlement in the East that ended the Korean War, leaving both North Korea and Tibet in China’s grip.

Before long the State Department will come to consider Crimea part of Russia, just as it now considers Tibet part of China. Will the compromise have been worth it?

Perhaps to Americans, weary of conflict and eager to save money on defense. But Ukranians and, over time, the Crimeans, as they come to understand what it is to live in a bankrupt despotism, will not think so.

Abandoning them is not moral and it is certainly not dignified, but Crimea is not so much too big to fail as too small to matter.

Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern EconomicsRead extracts here.


PHOTO (TOP): A Russian serviceman directs Russian tanks after their arrival in Crimea in the settlement of Gvardeiskoye near the Crimean city of Simferopol, March 31, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

PHOTO (INSERT 1): Russian President Vladimir Putin smiles during a meeting with CEO of the Siemens AG Joe Kaeser at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, March 26, 2014. REUTERS/Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) walks past President Barack Obama (C) during a group photo at the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, September 6, 2013. At top left is British Prime Minister David Cameron. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque




18 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Only Ukrainians can tell you if they are prepared to give up their land. Putin has lit the fire of Ukrainian nationalism and shown why Ukraine’s number 1 enemy is rasPutin. USA should be arming Ukrainian partisans because the only thing keeping rasPutin out of Ukraine is the threat of a Ukrainian guerilla war after he rolls his tanks into Kiev.
rasPutin knows he would lose a Ukrainian guerilla war over the vast Ukrainian territory, and that his pipelines moving 60% of Russian gas over Ukrainian territory would have no chance of surviving such a guerilla war. ARM THE UKRAINIANS.

Posted by UScitizentoo | Report as abusive

Tibet did not vote to join China. China invaded Tibet and started killing people. Tibet was a sloppy analogy, and it brings the writer’s whole argument into question.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Iran using nukes on Israel? Um, no, dopey. They just want the capacity to produce them, because, well, it keeps you from being invaded. I’d do it if I were them.

So here we got an über-lib parroting a neo-con talking point. Funny how some notions become axioms. Ditto for the chem weapons comments.

As for “despotisms,” the spectacle of unelected bureaucrats and leftist special interests lording it over formerly sovereign nations would seem to put the EU in that category.

Posted by Zeken | Report as abusive

“…the Crimeans, as they come to understand what it is to live in a bankrupt despotism…”

Very funny. This author makes it seem like Ukrainians are at risk of losing paradise. Ukraine is a poverty stricken failed state on the verge of bankruptcy…always seems to be “governed” by an extremely corrupt political class, and now fascists…ranks 144 out of 177 on the Global Corruption Perception Index. Relatively speaking, Russia IS a paradise.

Posted by sarkozyrocks | Report as abusive

The Sudetenland was also ‘too small’, Tibet is ‘too small’ and there are doubtlessly quite a number of other regions that are ‘too small’ to really react. In fact the Baltic States are ‘far too small’, perhaps even Germany isn’t ‘that big’ either. The Kremlin knows how to play poker better than our blabla heroes, that’s for sure.

Posted by Earthtourist | Report as abusive

The case shows that countries that don’t have nukes (such as Iran), or enough military gear, cannot feel safe anymore. Laziness of Western politicians will likely trigger a global rearmament. Obama and EU will not be remembered well for their cowardice!

The Crimean case brings up the question of what is the worth of all those Nobel prizes that the EU and Obama got? For what?

Posted by Radek.kow1 | Report as abusive

All of this is what some of us knew since the beginning. Obama is not going to honor any American treaties/promises that will start a war. Not going to happen.
The most powerful military in the world, the United States Military, is only as good as the Commander in Chief that calls the shots. Weak leader = weak military.
Look at it a bit deeper: largest military suicide rate in history under Obama, Secret Service involved in drugs and prostitution, politicized IRS, domestic spying, militarized police forces, largest number of people on food stamps, secret courts and evidences, fantastically divided country…ALL of America is degenerating under the horrendous Obama administration.

Posted by stambo2001 | Report as abusive

stambo2001 complains: “ALL of America is degenerating under the horrendous Obama administration.”

Then move to Iraq. Bush’s trillion-dollar democratic paradise in the desert. We will miss you :)

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

“Putin thinks the world owes him Crimea for doing the right thing in Syria.”

Right, if you had an open vote, much of Ukraine seems like they would rather stick with Russia. The peoples biggest issue was the corrupt government, which hasn’t changed one bit since the EU backed coup leaders first order when in office was to sign a floundering country up to massive austerity in order to receive a IMF loan that they’ll be lucky to see the benefits of.

Posted by daniel3125 | Report as abusive


Crimea = vote.

Tibet = dead monks.

Am I missing some glaring similarity? These are not similar events in history at all. It is offensive to the people of Tibet that any serious person would equate their bloody tragedy to a local election in Crimea. Not the same thing.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

It’s amazing how Mr. Wapshott can turn a few hundred thousand people voting to rejoin their native country into an existential crisis for Western civilization.

Here’s the bottom line: Even if most Americans understood that Crimea has ownership of gas and oil deposits that now go to Russia, very few would demand a war for control of that oil. If Crimea had no oil deposits, Obama wouldn’t forbid Russia from taking Crimea back. And most Americans wouldn’t have cared at all!

Posted by UrDrighten | Report as abusive

“in which President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime would hand over the chemical weapons it had been using to kill its own people.”

The author of this article can’t be serious. This is a blatant lie. This wild accusation has never been proven by clear evidence. The Syrian government has NEVER used chemical weapons “to kill its own people”. The Syrian government has never killed its people. Period.

The phrase “to kill its own people” is a propaganda tool that western government operatives used when they want to attack governments that resist them.

Terrorists operating in Syria have been caught with chemical weapons in Turkey and Iraq. They put out Youtube videos experimenting chemical agents on rabbits. They have actually used chemical weapons in Syria with the help of NATO countries(through Turkey) and Arab tyrannical regimes.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive


Tibet has been a region of China since 1728. Mao did not “invade” Tibet. He went in there and restored Tibet to its former status as an autonomous region of China. The Dalai Lama (was probably told that he) did not appreciate having his self-designated sovereignty removed, so he took off. 50 years later, he’s still away, has formally abdicated his “sovereignty”, and says he does NOT want Tibet to split from China.

China, meanwhile, has spent sumptuously to support the Tibetan government not-in-exile as well as to exempt Tibetans from taxation. And also, China built the first rail line into Tibet a few years back.

Although Tibet has been found to have huge deposits of oil and iron ore, it’s not practical for Big Business to get their hands on it, which is why the US isn’t using sanctions to force the Chinese to “free Tibet”.

Tibetans haven’t risen up en masse to throw off Chinese “domination”. They are a very poor people and know who provides the bread that the put their yak butter on.

Posted by UrDrighten | Report as abusive

Is the author crazy? He wants the US to defend the Crimeans from Russia. Is it just a bad joke or a plain stupidity. The absolute majority of the residents of Crimea have badly wanted to be liberated from their Ukrainian cage where they were impoverished and humiliated and to become Russian citizens. And now they are quite happy with their new status.

Posted by Denouncer | Report as abusive

“Tibetans haven’t risen up en masse to throw off Chinese ‘domination’.”

Incorrect. They rose up in 1959 to do just that, and between 10,000 and 15,000 Tibetans were killed by People’s Liberation Army of China for daring to protest. The only reason someone would leave that fact out is if they were a Chinese troll, no offense. But I can spot them a mile away now, having worked in China. You guys even have a fake Google to help steer your thoughts.

The larger point is, Crimea is no Tibet. Crimea was a local election, not an invasion like Tibet. And nowhere near as bloody or involuntary as the Chinese occupation of Tibet. So the analogies to Tibet are misguided.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Spoken like a tre Western Imperialist. The greatest dictatorial forces in the world are all in the West.

If you want to see cronism, despotism, and corruption, you need not look further than in the mirror people……

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Wapshott is a charlatan and a crude propagandist. This is disgusting and has been rightly lambasted by these commentators, many of whom are more intelligent than this rather obvious government tool. Others have already pointed out his fabrications and falsifications, so I am happy to register my discontent at this shambles of an “analysis”

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

“Why is keeping Russia out of eastern Ukraine — rather than the swift return of Crimea to Ukraine — not the core of the Paris talks? ”
BECAUSE…you have missed the biggest US geopolitical goal of all…killing off Russias earnings from NATURAL GAS EXPORTS TO EUROPE,perhaps?

Nov. 13th, the same Yanukovich, signed exploration deals with Chevron and Shell, for Ukraine’s VAST SHALE GAS resources which lie untapped. Those deals, requiring $1Bn combined in upfront capital investment by these oil majors REQUIRES an EU FTA to exploit fully. But Yanukovich pulled a fast one at the last minute and denied Chevron and Shell a European FTA instead opting for a Russian FTA (which would mean the returns on that $1bn capex dramatically dropping to ZERO…duh can’t sell gas to the Russians). Enter the neo nazi coup and Yanukovich flees to Russia.

Russia, which already spends at least tens of Billions of $$s in imports, is about to see it’s sole dollar earning export go puff in a cloud of smoke….so it decides to impose “COSTS”…takes Crimea and promises mirror sanctions if heavy stage 3 sanctions are imposed on it hurting all those companies (western) it imports from while extracting costs for cutting off it’s big export market…makes sense from its POV.

But Obama presses ahead, and here we are. You are right it’s NOT about CRIMEA, it’s about EASTERN UKRAINE, and MOLDOVA and Trans-Dnepria (whatever).

Given that there is No way US can back down on Chevron fructifying it’s shale investment. Ergo an invasion of East Ukraine on any pretenses is A GIVEN (you can bet it will happen Russ will not watch it’s lifeline export wither away). It is the ONLY WAY RUSSIA CAN BREAK EVEN and extract cost. We are so close to WW3. Thanks Obama. Thanks Chevron. Couldn’t this have been better thought out?

You have MISSED THE ENTIRE DYNAMICS AT PLAY HERE, Mr Wapshott, that’s dangerous too. You too are doing your bit for WW3

Posted by kiers | Report as abusive

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