Putin’s Crimean stunt
Russian forces, using the first opportunity provided by the ongoing crisis in Kyiv, have seized Crimea. This bold move has provided an early strategic advantage to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his tug of war match with Western leaders.
The strategically located peninsula houses one of the very few hospitable natural deep sea harbors in the Black Sea, Sevastopol, which hosts the Russian Black Sea Fleet. It is from Sevastopol that Russians have sailed since the days of Catherine the Great toward the Turkish Straits and onward to the world’s seas.
The Russian move to regain Crimea caught the West unprepared and without much option, though talk of a renewed Cold War is in the news. While the Russian president claims, “Russia has the duty to protect the interests of the Russian-speaking population,” arguing their lives were put in danger by the “rightest extremists” who took power in Kyiv, nobody seems to believe his sincerity for a moment. Besides, the Russian act clearly violates international law.
Stunned by the audacity of the move, the international community has been slow to react and is at a loss to find an appropriate response. In addition to diplomatic calls to Putin to call off his forces, the United States, the European Union and G-8 all have signaled some sort of cosmetic measures, such as the withdrawal of ambassadors, suspension of preparations for the G-8 summit in Sochi, adoption of economic pressures and more. One thing is certain: Nobody wishes to repeat the Crimean War of 1853-56, where the European powers of the time stopped, albeit briefly, the tsarist expansion. That war came about due to the tsar’s insistence on expanding his protection of his Orthodox brethren in the Ottoman territories.
Reminiscent of days long gone, Putin today talks about protecting “Russian citizens” in Russia’s foreign perimeters. Although his intentions are not yet clear in Ukraine, it is more likely that he will confine his ambitions, for now, to Crimea and will try to protect what he won without firing a shot.
The West, on the other hand, is facing the most serious threat to the balance of power in the international system since the end of the Cold War. Crimea is not a tucked-away mountainous region like Ossetia. It is a geopolitically important piece of territory. Besides, some people have already argued the Western inaptitude in responding to the Russian occupation of Georgian territory in 2008 has emboldened Putin to move again. The silence from the international community, this time, they argue, might trigger further aggression. Thus, the West has to choose where to make its stand: In Crimea or in Chisinau, Minsk or Warsaw.
Under Putin, Russia has been searching for ways to increase its presence in the world and regain its status as a great power. He used both strong-arm tactics, such as against Georgia and Ukraine, and attempted to boost his prestige by using international events like the Sochi Olympic Games, where he spent more than $50 billion. The establishment of the Eurasian Custom Union has been another way to regain Russian influence in its foreign perimeters.
Putin has been feeling uncomfortable for some time with the policies of the West in what he sees as Russia’s sphere of influence. So, the Russian move in Crimea is not an isolated event benefitting from an opportunity. It was a calculated move; one that needs a calculated response, not harsh rhetoric and cosmetic measures.
As Russia is keenly aware of the reluctance and limitations of the Western powers to stop its action now, any empty threat would end in the loss of credibility for the West and the loss of life in Crimea. A long-term response, directed at forcing Russia to back down with cool deliberation might go further. The only question is whether the West can act in unanimity and has the resolve to confront Russia where it matters.