Facts on the Ground

by Andrew Stuttaford

Events create their own momentum.

Mark Galeotti ponders:

The scale and paint-scorching vitriol of Russian media and government rhetoric, the rentamob “defend the Crimea” marches, all this pushes the Kremlin into a position harder from which to withdraw. It has also radicalised Kyiv’s position–Ukraine has understandably mobilised as both political gesture and also practical precaution–and granted it sanctity in Western eyes….

What, one might ask, is Moscow’s endgame? What does it want, and how likely is it to get it. The more it radicalises Kyiv, the less likely it is to get some wider political settlement. Instead, it might be forced to take Crimea if for no other reason than that it has to be seen to accomplish something, even if this is a pyrrhic victory, one which will only hurt Russia.

Here, after all, is the perverse and twisted irony of the situation. Strictly from a coldly logical position (and I am not advocating this, I should add), in many ways it is in Kyiv’s interests for Moscow to steal Crimea, and turn it into some pseudo-state or new part of the Russian Federation. Ukraine loses a sunny peninsula, but also a distinct drain on the state’s coffers (the Crimean economy is not great, and the region receives net subsidies from the centre). It sheds the most troublesome and Russophile of its regions, one which has been a turbulent locus of trouble for Kyiv for most of post-Soviet Ukraine’s history. It also gets concrete proof of the threat it faces from Russian bullying and probably accelerated and solicitous assistance from the US, EU, NATO, etc. It also validates every Ukrainian fear about Russia.

There’s a lot to that, although, for very understandable reasons, this is an argument that would be seen as the chilliest of cold comforts in Kiev. 

Such calculations make me think of a conversation I had with a prominent Estonian a year or so after his country had won back its independence from Moscow. At the time, there was considerable anxiety about the destabilizing impact of the large (and restless) Russian-speaking minority imported into Estonia during the Soviet occupation.  A significant percentage of that population was clustered around Narva, a city on Estonia’s eastern border, a city that had been largely obliterated by the Red Army in 1944, then rebuilt in the usual Soviet proto-slum style and repopulated by (primarily) Russians. I asked the Estonian what he thought about the argument that his country should agree to shift its borders a few miles to the west. That would effectively transfer a problem, economically-troubled region to Russia and leave the rest of the country with a far less fissile ethnic balance. He replied that he could see the logic of that, but it would be emotionally (and thus politically) impossible for Estonians to agree to such a deal: they had already lost enough to Russia as it was.

Ukrainians are likely to feel the same way (even if the Crimea was only transferred to Ukraine comparatively recently), but whether they will be able to do anything to get the peninsula back in the event that Moscow decides to hang on to it is doubtful. Then the question will be if the Crimea’s loss is something Ukrainians can come, however mournfully, to accept (as the Finns have done with Karelia) or, instead, an Alsace-Lorraine, the French “lost provinces” that did so much to pave the way to 1914.

But that’s to think a long way ahead. The pressing question is what the West should do now. While there has to be a realistic recognition of the limits of Western power (the British army will not be returning to Sebastopol, Inkerman or the Alma any time soon) there also can be no acceptance, tacit or otherwise, of the principle that a large Russian minority (such as that still found in Estonia and Latvia–both NATO members–and, of course, eastern Ukraine) is enough to justify unilateral action by Moscow, a principle that could prove very dangerous indeed if left unchallenged.  

So what to do?