The Crimean Impasse: A Matter of Perspective

It has been nearly twenty days since the Russian Federation responded to the ‘dangers’ to ethnic Russians in the Crimea and often we have been asking ourselves who is in the wrong, is it the Russians. Certainly under international law they have violated several rules under the United Nations Charter. However Western hypocrisy has so often rendered many areas of the world a war zone, and on many disastrous occasions left regional crises worse than before. We can point to Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan and the splintering of Yugoslavia as several examples whereby NATO and the United States have bungled flare points in international and regional affairs either by inaction or military inflexibility.Irrespective of the past the situation does remain very dangerous.

The Russian Federation can argue that thus far their intervention has ensured a relatively stable process whereby the Republic of Crimea has gained it independence and moved towards it preference; that being a satellite in the Russian sphere of influence. Still it will remain only a partially recognised subject as many across the world contend the autonomy and the fairness of the election.

Let’s look at the potential ‘what ifs’ scenarios had the Russians not intervened; who have on the face of it ensured a stable, if illegitimate referendum to break-away from a disgruntled Ukraine. The Russian military swiftly mobilised and encircled locations where the Ukrainian were located on the Crimean peninsula denying them the ability to engage with the Crimean people or intervene in the referendum. The question is what if the Ukrainian soldiers had been able to engage with the ethnic Russians who strongly protested for secession, especially the self-employed/volunteer militia? Perhaps a bloodier result would have emerged had Ukrainian soldiers and police loyal to Kiev clashed with ethnic Russians. Similarly would this have sparked more violence in the other places dominated or partly occupied by other Russian speaking people and prompt a more bullish response than we are currently seeing by the Russian Army?  These potentially violent splits and threats to Russian security could have prompted a far more serious crisis than the one we are already witnessing unfold.

Let us look at it from a Russian perspective and that of the Crimea. Physically and politically, Crimea belongs to Ukraine; mentally and emotionally, it identifies with Russia and makes many Ukrainian citizens feel like strangers on their own territory. 

‘The problem is that the newly installed government in Ukraine do have strong neo-nazi elements, which is worrying. The last time Russia had Nazis on their border 30 million or so Russians were killed. Crimea used to be part of Russia, and it is like the Falkland Islands, choosing to be part of a country by popular opinion. The people in the Crimea deserve a say in which country they want to be part of. Russia also needed to secure its only ‘warm water’ naval base, which is key to its sphere of influence.’

Is simply a case of deja vu? The outcome is very similar to the current outcome of votes at 97%. Undoubtedly the opposition within the Crimea to the vote boycotted the vote, nor can you blame them. Who would vote in the shadow of Russia’s military might or the appalling pressure of some militant ethnic Russians (not all) and no government or election would win by such staggering proportions as we witnessed on Sunday. There are dangers on both side of the political spectrum be they Russian ultra-nationalists and the empowerment of extreme Ukrainian nationalists and neo-fascists is no less a menace than Putin’s use of force in the Crimea for example Svoboda and the Right Sector. Those who dismantle a government or attempt to as seen in Syria have their own clear faults. Hence the need to secure Russian interests and as I have repeated on numerous occasions the Western hemisphere condemn in wake of their own violations of international politics “don’t break agreements (let’s exclude the one not to expand NATO eastward), don’t invade countries on controversial pretexts (except Iraq) and don’t support minority secession movements (except Kosovo).

There are legitimate fears amongst the Tartars who have a tarnished history with the Russian state, that old wounds will re-open similar to the chaos in Chechnya, the harrowing explosion at the station and markets in Volgograd 32 (+2 perpetrators) are testimony to the continued tension between the Kremlin and Islamist militants in Caucasian Emirate (a self-proclaimed virtual state entity in Russia). Note: Each region has its different objectives. In response to the increasing terrorism, Russia tightened its grip on Chechnya as well as expanded its anti-terrorist operations throughout the region. Russia installed a pro-Moscow Chechen regime. In 2003, a referendum was held on a constitution that reintegrated Chechnya within Russia, but provided limited autonomy. According to the Chechen government, the referendum passed with 95.5% of the votes. Nevertheless not everyone will welcome becoming part of this New Crimea.

Certainly there are exceptional dangers on both sides and Putin, though his actions have been likened to previous dictators is not a 19th century imperialist, nor can he in any sense of the word be a 20th century genocidal leader, that is unrealistic. His actions are a direct violation of international law, but so far direct Russian military action has not resulted in the death of any civilians, though a disturbing reports while I was writing this has revealed in Simferopol that a Ukrainian serviceman was shot and killed this afternoon. It is no longer a bloodless intervention. Our values in the West have changed as supposed to what we believe we represent and how international affairs should be conducted. NATO and in particular the United States are enduring a severe identity crisis in foreign policy. The rhetoric does not match the actions nor do the actions taken match the aggressiveness of the speeches and threats. Although the Kremlin should always be monitored with a mixture of respect and caution, antagonising its hard-line elements without sufficient muscle to back up your convictions and opinions is a dangerous game which has already branded both ‘rude and reckless’.


It would also be fair to point out that despite the underlying problems pervading Russian society and government we have set ourselves giddy heights by which our own societies should be judged, as the United States and many others are pervaded by some very serious problems of their own that some overlook whether it be oligarchic power, politicians that lack any sort of identification with their own people and certainly in some circumstances moral and political apathy. Of course it difficult to compare different societies and cultures but we misunderstand Russia so frequently. Nevertheless any further action by the Russians in Ukraine would certainly escalate the crisis. Based upon the West’s impotence you wouldn’t doubt Putin to be bold and press further to defend the interests of Russia.

Which ever route Europe decides go to on Putin’s actions we have little economic, moral, and military leverage by which to outwit the bear which currently deals with its cub’s tantrums.  Economic sanctions would spark a trade war and worsen relationships which have already been set back by the current situation, perhaps this is why NATO, the EU and the U.S.A choose (thus far!) not to impose further sanctions than banning travel visas. Certainly the whole scenario has already weakened Western credibility and Russia though it has exaggerated the threat to the ethnic Russians and has overseen an election surround by barbed wire has acted in a way that the got the objective completed without soiling its reputation to the extent the cumbersome, head strong United States has done so often in history be it Vietnam, Angola, and the Middle East.

The Russian Federation is hardly in the right, nor is it a perfect state. What we are witnessing is a marked decline in the idea that reciprocal hegemony and liberalism in international relations are realistic. It is an unrealisable dream, a dangerous illusion, that politics like human nature is rooted in self-interest, and self-centered objectivity and most big powers players will do anything to hold on to their position on the international stage. Unilateral power-politics either of a military or arbitrary nature still and probably will always trump economic and soft power.  

It is not a Second Cold War, there are dangers on both sides of the spectrum, the question is at the moment as this who is provoking who? Who are the antagonists? The Russians? The Western Powers? Or the extremists on both sides? Does the threat lie in Western Ukraine or Crimea? Perspectives are of critical importance at this juncture as well as actions.  All it takes is one individual action or misinterpretation to change everything. For example Ukraine’s military says an officer has been killed in an attack on a base in Crimea. Ukraine has now authorised its troops to fire in self-defense. Alternately everything I have written could completely flip and the Russian Army could make a hash of an already dangerous situation as provocations increase between all sides. No side will win in these circumstances.

Matthew Williams