Vladimir Putin’s speech confirming what everyone already knew — that Russia would annex Crimea — was written up immediately afterwards by the media (and by former Western ambassadors to Moscow) as both a fait accompli in relation to Crimea and a Russian foreign-policy victory in general. It was certainly a bold, skillful, and effective performance.
Putin stressed NATO’s Kosovo intervention as a legal precedent for Russia’s military and constitutional takeover of a province of a neighboring state. That was a shrewd choice since, as conservative specialists in international law such as Jeremy Rabkin warned at the time, our actions in Kosovo involved a violation of the basic legal tenet of non-intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, one that might return to haunt us. (The Iraq war had much greater legal justification in numerous U.N. resolutions, which is presumably why Putin largely skirted it.) Putin’s argument will therefore undercut Western governments that oppose the annexation of Crimea on international-law grounds.
He underlined the historic relationship between Russia and Crimea — namely, that until the 1950s Crimea was a part of Russia. That argument will appeal to those Western companies, notably in German industry, that value their economic ties with Russia and would prefer not to risk them for what may look like — in Putin’s words — righting a historical wrong.
He promised that annexing Crimea was his last territorial demand in Ukraine. That will suggest to diplomats everywhere that if they agree to let Crimea be annexed (doubtless after some face-saving agreement on details that changes nothing important), they can relax and return to the status quo ante. What remains of Ukraine can then become the basis of a new compromise that would insist on something like a “unity” government, including pro-Russian parties — if we want to preserve our earlier illusions.
And overall Putin had some shrewdly reassuring words for almost everyone who might object to the swallowing of Crimea. He set out to sedate Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, Western investors, NATO, even American conservatives who might be comforted by his warm historical references to Christianity.
So is the crisis over? Not quite.
Almost every reassuring passage in Putin’s speech was contradicted by another passage. His promise to respect Ukrainian sovereignty, for instance, was balanced by his claim of a right to protect ethnic Russians wherever they are under threat. Since his intelligence services are at present fomenting ethnic conflict in eastern Ukrainian cities, that reduces the value of his assurances to slightly below that of the Russian ruble.
Putin’s clever manipulation of the Kosovo precedent ignores the fact that his annexation of Crimea breaks Russia’s own pledge in the Budapest declaration to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. That does more than reduce the value of Russian promises — it emphasizes the awkward fact that Russia under Putin is a lawless state run by its own security services.
Above all, Putin is still behind where he was five months ago, when he began pressing his puppet, President Viktor Yanukovych, to withdraw Ukraine from its proposed relationship with the European Union. Then, Ukraine was not only part of Russia’s zone of influence; it was intended by Putin to become much closer to Moscow, to the point of joining his own Eurasian Union. Today Ukraine is outside Russia’s zone of influence altogether; and as long as Crimea is annexed and occupied, it will remain outside. That in turn will ensure that Belarus, Kazakhstan, and other post-Soviet nations will be reluctant to join the proposed union too. Unless Putin is content to abandon his grand design to revive COMECON in post-Soviet form — and in the present heady, nationalistic mood of Moscow, that seems unlikely — he will be looking for new opportunities to expand its potential membership.
For all these reasons, Crimea is not the end of a crisis but the midpoint of one that began with the occupation of parts of Georgia in 2008. The difference is that the West now realizes the nature of the Putin regime. Even if it fails to agree on serious sanctions, therefore, it will gradually move to reduce its reliance on undependable Russian energy. Which means that the future crises Putin sends us will occur against a background of Russia’s greater economic weakness.