Today, the Crimeans are voting in a referendum to decide whether they want to rejoin Russia or exercise greater autonomy within Ukraine. This is a result of the crisis created by the contest between Western countries and Russia to maintain their control over Ukraine. Both sides have blamed each other for the crisis and Western countries have threatened to impose sanctions against Moscow if Crimeans decided to secede from Ukraine. However, both sides must share equal blame if Ukraine disintegrated.
Crimea has a tortured history. All major past empires in the region invaded and occupied the peninsula at different periods. The territory came under Russia in 1856 at the end of the Crimean war. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian, transferred the territory from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 without any problem. Crimea, where Russians constitute the majority, has now become a serious issue.
Big power rivalry has been building up there ever since the Soviet Union broke and Ukraine became independent 1990. The United States and the European Union have been pushing the idea of giving Ukraine NATO and EU membership but Russia has consistently opposed it.
After the breakup 1990, Moscow either did not or could not prevent several other Warsaw Pact members from joining the NATO or EU. It could have been because either Russia was too weak at that time or the countries that have already joined the Western alliances were not as important strategically and culturally as Ukraine.
Ukraine has a special place in Russian psyche and strategy. The foundation of Russian empire and religion were also laid in Kiev, the capital of the now troubled country. And Ukraine is large, shares common border with Russia, and is the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea fleet located at Crimea. That is why Moscow has been trying to keep Ukraine in its orbit harder than other Eastern European countries.
This is not the first time Western and Russian interests have clashed in the post-1990 period over Ukraine. In 2004, the West-supported Orange Revolution dislodged the pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, and the pro-West Viktor Yushchenko became president. Yanukovych came back to power as prime minister in 2006. In the snap election in 2007, the pro-West Yulia Tymoshenko became prime minister. As the economy suffered under Tymoshenko, Yanukovych won the presidential elections in 2010.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko had sought to align Ukraine with the NATO and EU. But Yanukovych changed course and decided to join the Eurasian Union propagated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. The West supported the opposition to mount protests in Kiev early this year. On February 21, an agreement was reached between Yanukovych and the opposition to settle the crisis, but the West persuaded the opposition to walk out of the agreement.
As the agreement failed, Yanukovych fled the capital on February 22. The protestors formed a pro-West regime in Kiev and the parliament passed a new bill cancelling the second language status for Russian. This outraged Russian-speaking eastern Ukrainians, who mounted their own anti-Kiev protests. Russia supported them.
In this fight between two elephants to secure their hegemony over Ukraine, Crimea decided to hold the referendum taking place today. In this vote, the Crimeans will decide whether the Crimea becomes an integral part of Russia or remains an autonomous part of Ukraine, the two choices given in the referendum.
If the West had exercised caution, this climax could have been avoided. If Western countries had not sent their leaders to Kiev to express their support for the new regime and begun to work on a financial package Ukraine desperately needs to remain solvent, Russia would not have withdrawn its financial package. Neither would it have any ground to mobilize the military outside its naval base in Crimea which is maintained under a lease agreement.
In the contest of their strategic interests, neither Western countries nor Russia ever thought about what was best for Ukraine and what the Ukrainian people themselves wanted. Now Ukraine and its people are suffering the consequences of this unfortunate contest. That is a tragedy.
Aggressive military posture taken by Russia in Crimea is wrong. So are the Western provocation and the draconian sanctions to punish Moscow. Therefore, both Russia and Western countries need to step back and let the Ukrainian people decide what they want. The status quo ante of 21 February and the agreement signed between Yanukovych and his opponents on that day could be the best starting point. It may still save the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
Russia needs to understand that it does not have the international law, wherewithal and competitive strength to outplay the West. The West must understand that it does not enjoy moral high ground and capacity to bend Russia.
The West has no moral case to make in Crimea after what it has done in Kosovo, South Sudan, Timore L’este, Iraq and many other places. Russia trying to maintain its influence in Ukraine is akin to the United States trying to invoke the Monroe Doctrine for the Americas. I do not agree with the Monroe Doctrine or its Russian counterpart, but I have no hesitation to say that they are one and the same.
Neither does the West have enough strength to bend Moscow over Ukraine. If the United States has not been able to shatter Cuba next door with several decades of strict sanctions, it could not cow down Russia, the second largest nuclear power and one of the largest economies in the world, with its sanctions. Russia could retaliate by turning off the gas pipes to Western Europe and by seizing Western assets in its territories.
Sober reflection suggests that Washington needs Moscow as much as Moscow needs Washington for world peace, security and progress. So the best Western policy would still be to let Ukrainian people sort out their differences themselves and decide what they want, without any external interference. If the Ukrainian people want Western help, let them decide so through a democratic process. If they want Russia to help them, so be it.
Otherwise, Western countries, which might have already lost Crimea for Ukraine in today’s referendum, would only encourage the rump Ukraine to descend into violence and split into two.