US LOSING CRIMEA’S GREAT GAME
Crimea took to the polls on March 16, with voters overwhelmingly supporting a referendum to break from Ukraine and move towards integration with Russia. The referendum itself was a formality: More than 95 per cent of voters were in favour, against a backdrop of heavy Russian military presence and no external observers from the international community. The Russian government ensured it would run smoothly by neutralising the Ukrainian military and media in the area, suspending direct flights to Kiev, and even going so far as to halt Ukrainian mobile phone service.
In fact, the response from the United States and Europe in the lead-up to the referendum, and in its wake, went according to the script as well, with sharp rhetoric accompanied by measured escalatory action. A billion dollars in loan guarantees for Kiev’s government was held up in the US Congress. The UN Security Council’s emergency resolution was promptly vetoed by Russia (one of five members with a permanent seat). The US and EU did impose moderate sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes on a number of Ukrainian and Russian officials, but they don’t extend as high up as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. The Obama administration wants to reserve more acute responses as a deterrent against further Russian incursion into eastern or southern Ukraine. In the meantime, Russians may make good on their promise to meet this “punishment” of Western sanctions with retaliatory moves. It’s likely that Russia will formally annex Crimea in the coming months. In short, in the wake of the Crimean referendum, we’ve been left with a pattern of tit-for-tat escalation.
But from here on, we can forget about the ‘script’ and the ‘formality’ of Russian and Western behaviour surrounding the Crimean referendum. We are entering uncharted waters. The main question now is: Will Russia stop at Crimea, or will Putin move into southern or eastern Ukraine? What does it mean for Ukraine—and what does it mean more broadly?
On balance, it’s likely that Putin does not move into eastern Ukraine. But it remains an alarming possibility that he does so. While much of it may be posturing, Putin has set the stage for further incursion. Russia has pushed the envelope by seizing a small village and a gas plant that are some five miles across the Crimean border into southeast Ukraine. It is also important to keep Putin’s domestic motivations in mind. His popularity back home has vaulted to its highest level in years, topping 70 per cent. This popularity has come hand-in-hand with a crackdown on the media. It is combination that doesn’t usually accompany a climb-down in policy. And if Putin does go further into Ukraine, he’ll have Russia staunchly behind him. On top of this, some of the risk surrounds a situation where Putin’s ‘hand is forced’ by events on the ground in Ukraine: If there are severe outbreaks of violence in which ethnic Russians in southeast Ukraine are targeted, such images will not sit well with Russians back home. It would be a matter of time before Putin feels obligated to move in.
And if Putin does push further militarily, the consequences are dire indeed. We’ll enter a period of instability and crisis, where risks include civil war and breakup of Ukraine, huge shocks to energy prices, massive capital flight of Russian oligarchs from Western capital havens, and ratcheting up of sanctions against Russia, more in line with those in place in Iran today.
Even if Russia stops its military incursions in Crimea, there are tremendous geopolitical knock-on effects that we should already be taking into account. Events in Ukraine will complicate all areas of US-Russia ties. Russia doesn’t want an Iranian nuclear weapon, but they could be less cooperative with US and EU on Iranian negotiations, possibly making a “third way” offer that undermines the American deal. On Syria, Russia will become very intransigent, making it difficult to implement the chemical weapons agreement; Moscow will provide greater financial and military support for Bashar Assad’s regime.
More broadly, recent events have significantly hit the credibility of American foreign policy. Within days of Secretary of State John Kerry taking strong exception to “asinine”, “isolationist” views in Congress that were framed as if the US is a “poor country”, a direct admonition from the US and its key allies was wilfully ignored by the Russian president as he moved into Crimea. That has sent a message of weakness and brings concerns about American commitment to allies around the world. All of this reinforces the prevailing geopolitical dynamic: We are in a world with a distinct and dangerous lack of global, coordinated leadership. Given the recent escalation in Ukraine and all the open questions of what comes next, it’s safe to say we have entered the most dangerous geopolitical environment we’ve seen since the events surrounding 9/11.
REUTERS AN ANTI-WAR RALLYIN MOSCOWPROTESTING AGAINST
INCURSIONS OFTHE RUSSIAN ARMYINTO CRIMEA