The de facto expropriation of Crimea by Russia raises serious questions about the perceived legitimacy of the new government in Kiev, ethnicity in Ukraine, Russian history, Russian pride, and Russia's ability to project its power in the future. Depending on one's frame of reference, Russia's actions this past weekend either evoke outrage or relief, as Ukraine becomes the epicenter of the battle between pro and anti-European and Russian influence in the region. In the absence of any meaningful military response by either Europe or the United States -- which is not expected -- Mr. Putin appears to have achieved what many Russians have sought since jurisdiction over Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 -- a return of Crimea to Russia.
Indeed, this has as much to do with history as it does modern politics. Following World War II, Joseph Stalin ethnically cleansed Crimea, effectively making it majority Russian, followed by its formal annexation by Russia in 1945. Khrushchev returned Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 in what has been referred to as a "symbolic" gesture to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine having become part of the Russian empire. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimea became part of independent Ukraine. Tension over jurisdictional authority and the administration of Russia's Black Fleet have been present between the two countries since that time, with Crimea vacillating between falling under Kiev's jurisdiction and being a semi-autonomous republic. The post War and post-USSR history of Crimea is at the heart of the current conflict.
Russia's stated intention of protecting Russian interests and Russian citizens beyond its borders has implied that a day of reckoning would eventually emerge -- and it has. Since 2008 Ukraine has accused the Russian government of issuing Russian passports to citizens of Crimea. Anti-Ukrainian protests have occurred in Crimea since 2009. A raucous debate ensued in the Ukrainian Parliament in 2010 regarding extension of Russia's lease over the naval base in Sevastopol through 2042, though the treaty was ratified. Left unsaid in many western news reports is the importance Russian attributes to the ability to project its power from Sevastopol -- Russia's only warm water port. Following last week's coup in Kiev, Mr. Putin saw an opportunity to secure Sevastopol, as well as Crimea, and he took it.
Many Russians do not view the change of government in Kiev as legitimate, which is an important reason why Mr. Putin easily won the approval of the Duma to exercise military force to secure Crimea. For them, it is little more than reclaiming land that had historically been theirs. One of the first actions of the new government in Kiev was to abolish the Law on Languages, eliminating Russian (among others) as a recognized language and making Ukrainian the sole national language of the country. Given that a majority of the population of Crimea is ethnic Russian, Mr. Putin knew there would be no significant resistance to the Russian expropriation. The Russian Foreign Ministry claims that its actions are fully compliant with agreements governing the Black Sea Fleet.
From many Russians' perspective, the government now in place in Kiev overthrew the constitutional order and lacks legitimacy. Mr. Putin no doubt feels he had little choice but to act as he had, and sees his action not as neo-Soviet imperialist, but rather as pro-Russian. Which begs the question -- is the Russian position on protecting its interests and citizens much different than that of the U.S.? Both powers project their power outside their borders in a manner others may find objectionable and unjustifiable. A big difference, of course, is that the U.S. is not in the habit of de facto permanent expropriation of land outside its borders. However, I find myself wondering whether the U.S. would have acted much differently if it were in the same position, with the same history and stakes. I suspect not.
The international community is not going to be very happy about what Mr. Putin has done, but you can be sure he considered the risks involved in doing so, and calculated that whatever comparatively minor consequences may ensue are far outweighed by the benefit of securing Crimea. It remains to be seen whether Russia's actions will indeed be permanent, but we shouldn't be surprised if it turns out to be. The legacy of history and the strength of national pride are powerful inducements to take decisive action, even if it results in the breach of international law in the process.
In the end, Russia is unlikely to suffer much for its actions. Neither the EU nor the U.S. are likely to take military action to reverse the tide, and, in the end, Russia doesn't care much about whether it is a member of the G8 or not. Some economic sanctions may ensue, but to Mr. Putin and many Russians, righting an historical wrong is far more important. They also know that Europe and the U.S. need Russia every bit as much as Russia needs them -- perhaps more so vis-à-vis the delivery of gas to Europe and the hope for much needed collaboration on foreign policy for the U.S. in Iran and Syria. If recent history is any guide, this too shall pass.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, Senior Advisor with Gnarus Advisors, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk".
Reprinted with permission from the South China Morning Post.