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Ukraine crisis: Crimea is to all intents and purposes Russian

Crimean referendum campaign posters in Sevastopol. EPA/Zurab Kurtsikidze

The Crimean crisis is sliding from bad to worse, not least for the inhabitants of what until a month ago was an idyllic peninsula waiting for the glory of springtime. As the ultra-right and neo-Nazi thuggery of the Kievan fringes has spread to Sevastopol and Simferopol, Crimea’s political status as a proxy in struggles between Russia, the EU and the US has taken the spotlight off the plight of its inhabitants.

To the West, Crimea’s people are Ukrainian whether they like it or not; and if they don’t shut up, Putin will pay for it. We are, sadly, already accustomed to sickening violence on Kiev’s streets and squares, but both western Ukraine and Crimea have become the new focus for various militant nutcases to attach themselves to the cause as parasites.

Former Chechen fighters have apparently turned up in western Ukraine to promote the anti-Russian cause. Meanwhile, in Crimea, Chetniks, extreme nationalists from Serbia, have descended to help their Russian “brothers and sisters” in return for Russian support for Serbia in 1914, 1941 and the 1990s.

The situation is a mess, and will be for as long as the West parades its trophy “prime minister” around its capitals – a prime minister imposed without election on a now bitterly divided country.

Viewed from Moscow, the West’s actions look wearyingly familiar. Various western powers did not hesitate to kick over the traces when it suited them. Hypocritical cant about the sovereignty of nations and the inviolability of borders raises the names Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and many other unilaterally-created states in the Russian mind. Especially ironic are references to the violation of the Helsinki Accords – which, among other things, recognised the borders of the Soviet Union.

Since the time of Gorbachev, the main impact of western policy in eastern Europe has been to peel states away from Soviet/Russian influence with as little sensitivity and grace as possible, and to incorporate them into the EU and NATO. In the extreme case of the now-abandoned American ballistic missile system once planned for installation in Poland and the Czech Republic, forward-based nuclear missiles were brandished directly in Russia’s face. The pretext that they were to be put there as a defence against Iran rang particularly hollow in Russia.

However, everyone should have the sense to know that trying to drive a wedge between Russia and Ukraine was an irresponsible step too far. Playing on the extreme anti-Russian sentiment voiced by the interim prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, not only provokes Putin; it provokes ethnic Russians and others within Ukraine’s diverse population.

All sides at fault

So, to repeat a question which has rung through Russian history since the 1860s, what is to be done? No one looks likely to come out of this crisis with their honour intact. The EU has pursued irresponsibly divisive policies which it can only back up with words, lacking decisive reserves of money or force. Even the carrot of EU membership was deceptive, as it is hard to see Ukraine fitting EU membership criteria within 25 years.

Thanks to Ukraine’s pre-coup rulers of all factions, the country has spent the last quarter century as Europe’s worst-governed large state. A beautiful country, full of potential, has become an economic basket case way beyond even Greek dimensions. Ironically, since the make-up of Ukraine is very similar to that of Russia – they share the Soviet legacy, dangerous oligarchs, a cowed population and so on – one can see why Russians like Putin. Under Yeltsin, Russia was heading in the same direction as Ukraine. While Putin’s rule is far from ideal, his authoritarianism has established a platform of stability and even some prosperity in Russia.

The third group of actors in this crisis, the post-coup EU-backed authorities, who naively believed the promises of support from the West would boost their domestic political heft, have been ludicrously provocative. Even though many leaders distanced themselves from it quickly, the attempt to ban Russian as an official language was a moment of revelatory truth for ethnic Russians. An even bigger stupidity is Yatsenyuk’s threat to throw Russia out of its Sevastopol base by 2017, which could only be done by annulling the Kahrkiv Pact that gives them access until 2047. This is like Cuba telling the US to quit Guantanamo in three years’ time, and we all know how the US would react to that.

There is no way Yatsenyuk can enforce an attempt to turf Russia out without a major conflict, which Ukraine would be sure to lose. History shows that when he looks over his shoulder for his EU and American allies, there will be supportive gestures backed by money, but no boots on the ground. Yatsenyuk’s behaviour is highly provocative and completely toothless, both dangerous and incompetent.

Fears of fascism are running high in Crimea. EPA/Zurab Kurtsikidze

Flashpoint: Crimea

Which brings us back to Crimea. This contentious and independent-minded region stretches the definition of “sovereign territory” to its extreme. It was only a Soviet caprice that put it under Ukrainian jurisdiction, a status it had not had for centuries. In 1954, as one of his “[hare-brained schemes](”, Khrushchev magnanimously transferred Crimea to Ukraine as a meaningless gesture to commemorate 300 years of Russian/Ukrainian unity. The ironies arising from this are almost limitless, not least the fact the transfer was made to cement what, in Sovietspeak, was called Russia and Ukraine’s “unbreakable friendship”.

Is the west really prepared to go to the brink of regional war to defend the legitimacy of a piece of Soviet serendipity? How many other Soviet territorial arrangements has the West considered to be inviolable? In reality, Crimea is to all intents and purposes Russian, and is very close to Russian hearts – not least because of the heroic defence of Sevastopol, one of the USSR “hero cities” alongside Stalingrad and Leningrad. As things stand, Crimea seems unlikely to cease to be either formally or informally Russian when the crisis is over.

None of the above considerations means the fourth actor in the crisis, Putin, deserves any more credit than anyone else. He has asserted Russia’s interests in the crisis very much à la Putin – that is with no subtlety, finesse or openness to dialogue, but simply through a bullying demeanour, adolescent bellicosity and a clear contempt for the hollow threats of his major adversaries. It should be noted that this crude disdain for empty American and EU bluster plays well to a large Russian constituency, and will surely bolster Putin’s lately fading support at home.

Given how poorly all four major actors in this crisis have behaved, the prospect of a lasting agreement to end the crisis seems remote. However, who can define what the crisis is about? What exactly is it that is keeping the sides apart? Russia and the West both claim to support the proposition that Ukraine should be open to the EU and Russia, not least because a joint effort will be required to bail it out of its fiscal mire. The difference is that Russia wants a return to the pre-coup January agreement, while the west insists on the inviolability of the coup they set up.

The differences here might be ironed out if the upcoming elections turn out to be fair and reasonable, by Ukrainian standards at least. The dream outcome would be a mini-Marshall plan, co-sponsored by the EU, US and Russia, to help Ukraine fulfil its potential; in addition, Russia’s long-term lease on the Sevastopol base must be upheld. If any revision of Ukraine’s borders is to come about, it should be by due process and not by Russian land grab or Ukrainian internal repression of Russians, a breathtakingly dangerous option.

Crimea will likely emerge with an unrecognised but de facto independence; it might even face incorporation into the Russian Federation. Cool heads and a willingness to engage with realities rather than to posture could foster a reasonable solution along these lines. The story of the crisis so far, however, suggests these vital commodities are in short supply all round.

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