Will Crimea’s ‘strategic importance’ cost Putin his political future?

Published: March 22, 2014
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Do common Russians in Russia want to see the country’s economy strained with new entrants, or are they happy with the proceedings? PHOTO: REUTERS

The moment you log on to an international news channel nowadays, two stories frequently flash on your screens: the missing Malaysian airplane and Crimea – the climax of the Ukrainian crisis.

Although the agonising search for the debris of flight MH370 seems to be in its final stages with the latest Australian revelations, the Crimean crisis is still far from over. In the wake of the latest developments, the Russian State Duma has approved the treaty of making Crimea a part of Russia.

The US, EU and the West called it an act of aggression, Mr Gorbachev called it a ‘Soviet era mistake corrected’, the Chinese remained mum and the Russians called it reclaiming the ‘lost part of Russia’.

Indeed, the crisis in Ukraine has escalated. In the words of a Ukrainian friend, Alina Manzhelevskaya,

“A majority of the Crimean population is happy to join Russia and supports Russian requests for the Ukrainian military to leave the Crimean bases, while the Ukrainian minority is being prepared for evacuation, which could see them losing their assets and properties. Ukraine is mobilising its army, whereas people from at least six countries, including Georgia and Turkey, have offered to voluntarily support the Ukrainian army in case of any possible military actions against Russia.”

Although I was initially sceptical of Russian military mobilisation and a potential use of force against Ukraine – a sovereign state – the referendum in Crimea, with 96% approval in favour of Russia, somehow tempted me to reconsider my opinion.

With all the criticism against his actions on a sovereign territory, Putin responded to his Western critics using the jargon of ‘international law’Referring to Crimea at the State Duma, he said,

“They say we violate international law. Good that they remember international law. Better late than never.”

This debate of international law and former precedents is where the whole issue gets spiced up.

Russia vehemently uses Kosovo as an example and a precedent to support Crimea and justify its annexation. But how correct is Putin in this comparison?

Kosovo’s independence came after ethnic Albanians wanted a separate land whereas Crimea’s referendum also included local Russians wanting to join Russia – albeit the referendum was rushed. But this comparison may also be negated through a major difference.

While Russia sent its troops even before any major incidents of violence took place, the intervention in Kosovo resulted after mass human rights violations had been going on for a decade. Russian actions in Crimea were apparently triggered by Ukraine’s strategic importance both, for Russia and the West.

Ukraine, as a regional player, could easily be considered a buffer and a bridge between Russia and Europe. With the NATO’s missile defence systems already hovering around Russian borders, Ukraine could be the last piece in the puzzle to compromise Russia’s strategic advantage. Moreover, Russia’s gas supply conduit to Europe also passes through Ukraine, making it a big factor in Russian economy.

With the fall of a pro-Moscow government in Ukraine and the country’s renewed westward inclinations, one could also imagine Russia’s severe response if Ukraine decided to join Nato, thus further expanding Nato’s eastward expansion.

And hence, Russia’s desperation to get at least a chunk of the pie (Ukraine) has its strategic explanations.

With such dynamics, can one expect Russia to play soft on the matter?

Definitely not.

However, Russian actions also come with consequences.

The EU and the US have already launched a series of step-wise sanctions on Russia. What began with travel and visa embargoes could end in economic isolation for Moscow. Putin must realise that his energy-driven economy is mostly dependent on its European clients, with Russia making up for 30% of Europe’s gas supplies. Any severe sanctions could hurt him badly, both politically and economically.

Germany – the EU spearhead and Russia’s most important trade partner – has also committed itself to imposing sanctions in case of further violations from Russia. Though Merkel calls Moscow’s actions “a severe breach of international laws”, she also realises the fact that her country’s trade with Russia reached close to $80 billion last year.

With such mammoth figures and energy resources coming into play, Merkel may face the risk of losing a major trade partner and a backlash from the local business community if she plays hard on sanctions.

Russia, a country somehow plagued with economic and political struggles, may have thought long and hard before taking in a new territory to expand its borders. But what about the common Russians living in Russia?

Do they want to see the country’s economy strained with new entrants or are they happy with the proceedings? Because if they are not, then the Crimean annexation could certainly hurt Putin’s popularity and political prospects.

Farooq Yousaf

Farooq Yousaf

The author is a PhD (Politics) Candidate currently pursuing his studies in Australia. He has previously completed his Masters in Public Policy and Conflict Studies from Germany. He also consults Islamabad-based Security think tank, Centre for Research and Security Studies, and occasionally writes for various news and media sources. He is specialising in Indigenous conflict resolution and counter insurgency. He tweets at @faruqyusaf (twitter.com/faruqyusaf?lang=en)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.