By Stefan Wolff, University of Birmingham and Tatyana Malyarenko, Donetsk State Management University
Following the referendum in Crimea, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has signed a decree recognising the peninsula as a sovereign and independent state.
The EU and the US have responded to developments in Simferopol and Moscow by imposing a range of sanctions.
While the EU and US responses were predictable and had been clearly announced in the days before the referendum, Russia’s reaction deserves a more nuanced analysis. On the one hand, Russia’s recognition of Crimea follows the pattern of events in Georgia in 2008. On the other hand, there is a striking difference: Crimea’s referendum was not about independence, but about joining the Russian Federation. Put differently, Putin has just recognised a “country” that does not actually want to be a country.
A speech by Putin scheduled for Tuesday on Crimea’s request to join the Russian Federation may offer more clarity on what is behind the Kremlin’s reaction, including the way in which the recognition decree has been phrased: “Given the declaration of will by the Crimean people in a nationwide referendum held on March 16, 2014, the Russian Federation is to recognise the Republic of Crimea as a sovereign and independent state, whose city of Sevastopol has a special status.”
The way the decree has been formulated goes hand in hand with the announcement of Putin’s address to State Duma deputies, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and civil society representatives at the Kremlin to cover “the Republic of Crimea’s and city of Sevastopol’s request to join the Russian Federation”.
Waiting for Putin
Two issues stand out from this. First, an immediate annexation of Crimea is unlikely. Putin’s speech may shed some more light on the Kremlin’s plans, but there would still be some parliamentary procedure to be followed to affect the annexation. Given that Putin’s speech is scheduled for 3pm local time, this is unlikely to happen immediately.
Gambler: Vladimir Putin EPA/Mikhail Klimentyev/Ria Novosti/Kremlin Pool
Second, while Sevastopol has always had a special status of sorts in Crimea, the fact that it has been singled out so obviously is significant. It could signal a degree of flexibility in Russia’s approach to the crisis, indicating that Sevastopol and the rest of Crimea may be treated differently. For example, a “sovereign and independent Crimea” may negotiate and agree with Moscow a Russian annexation of Sevastopol. This would give Russia an even firmer hold on its naval base, while not crossing the line of annexing the whole of Crimea and thus retaining a potential bargaining chip in negotiations with Ukraine and the West. This would not preclude a subsequent annexation of Crimea, however, which clearly remains on the cards.
Such a more gradual, phased approach would also make sense from a reading of the conclusions of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council on Monday, which urged “the Russian Federation not to take steps to annex Crimea in violation of international law” and threatened that any “further steps by the Russian Federation to destabilise the situation in Ukraine would lead to additional and far-reaching consequences for relations in a broad range of economic areas between the European Union and its member states, on the one hand, and the Russian Federation, on the other hand”, while reiterating that reversing the current negative trend and avoiding further escalation through “constructive dialogue with all sides” remained possible.
A Russian-Ukrainian “peace treaty” meant to allow Ukrainian armed forces in Crimea to exit and enter their bases freely and to replenish supplies has entered into force and is to last initially until March 21, 2014. At the same time, the Ukrainian parliament voted to allocate some US$600m to the defence budget, partly to mobilise 40,000 troops over the next three months.
In other words, all sides escalate in rather predictable and incremental ways, staking out their claims, but not rushing to war.
West caught flatfooted
Yet, while some of this may appear as a silver lining it also betrays a serious lack of options on the part of the West. Not only is it clearly close to impossible to reverse the disintegration of Ukraine – whether through a full or partial annexation of Crimea by Russia – but some of Russia’s proposals on how to move forward on Ukraine indicate how Russia may move forward elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
Tension: Ukraine has mobilised 40,000 reservists to back its regular armed forces. EPA/Ivan Boberskyy
For example, reports of Russian proposals to establish a support group (rather than a Western-proposed contact group) of states to mediate in the crisis after a recognition of the referendum and to focus on negotiating a new constitution for Ukraine that would enshrine political and military neutrality eerily reflect the Russian approach to two decades of fruitless efforts of resolving the Transnistrian conflict in Moldova.
From this perspective, the ball is, and remains, in Putin’s court. The current sanctions imposed by the EU and US may be the beginning or end of a new Cold War. The current asset freezes and travel bans, in addition to a range of softer sanctions imposed earlier in March, may not be as hard-hitting yet, but there seems to be a determination on the part of Western leaders to escalate sanctions, which anyway would take time to have a real effect, if no progress is made in de-escalating and resolving the crisis.
None of this bodes well at all, but at least it does not spell an immediate outbreak of military hostilities – depressing though that might be as a measure of success.
Stefan Wolff currently receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK.
Tatyana Malyarenko does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.