May 04, 2014

Crimea Returns to Russia

Yohannan Chemarapally

PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin, despite the loud threats of sanctions and other punitive actions by the West, went along with the wishes of the people of the Crimean peninsula and duly signed a treaty incorporating the region into the Russian Federation on March 21. The overwhelming vote by the Crimeans in favour of re­joining Russia in the March 16 referendum had left President Putin with no other choice. In his speech to the Russia parliament, President Putin pointed out that Crimea’s referendum was in line with the UN Charter which speaks of the right of nations to self-determination. Putin reminded his western critics that Ukraine had followed a similar trajectory like Crimea when it seceded from the USSR. “Moreover, the Crimean authorities referred to the well known Kosovo precedent — a precedent our western colleagues created with their own hands in a very similar situation, when they agreed that the unilateral separation of Kosovo from Serbia, exactly what Crimea is doing now, was legitimate and did not require any permission from the country’s central authorities,” Putin said in his speech. WORLD NOT IMPRESSED BY US-EU STAND ON CRIMEA Coincidentally, it was 15 years ago that NATO launched its 78 day war on Yugoslavia, leading to the complete fracturing of the Yugoslav Federation and ultimately the creation of Kosovo in 2008. Before that in 1991, Croatia and Slovenia had conducted their own referendums on the issue of secession from Yugoslavia. This referendum had the full backing of the West. In January 1992, the European Union (EU) recognised the independence of the two states. A similar referendum held against the will of the central government in Belgrade was repeated in Bosnia in 1992. The West was also quick to recognise the independence of that state. These events signalled the beginning of the bloody war in the Balkans which ended with NATO military intervention and the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation. President Putin highlighted the double standards of the West, led by Washington, saying that it does not adhere to the “rule of law” but to the “rule of the gun,” believing in their exclusivity and exceptionalism. “They use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.” The international community is therefore not that impressed with the stand of Washington and Brussels that Russia has impinged on the sovereignty of Ukraine. The BRICS group, represented by their foreign ministers, issued a statement on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit at the Hague in the last week of March that they regretted the use of sanctions as a weapon against Russia. The bloc rejected a move initiated by Australian prime minister that Russia should be suspended from the G­20 summit due to be held later this year in Brisbane on the Crimean issue. The Australian prime minister, Tony Abbot, even suggested that President Putin will be barred from attending the summit. The statement by the BRICS nations is another clear indication that the developing countries have no appetite for the sanctions regime that the West wants to impose on Russia. “The escalation of hostile language, sanctions, counter sanctions, and force does not contribute to a peaceful and sustainable solution, according to international law, including the principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter”, the BRICS statement said. And in a pointed criticism of the Australian premier, the BRICS statement said that no single member of the G­20 can “unilaterally” take a decision on behalf of the group. Russia has been getting support from Latin American countries like Argentina. The Argentine president, Christina Fernandez, accused the US and UK of having “double standards.” She compared the referendum in Crimea with that held in the Falklands (the Malvinas), an island over which Argentina has valid claims. The two countries were quick to recognize the results of the referendum in the island in which the 2000 residents there voted to stay part of far away Britain. “We demand that when the great powers talk of territorial integrity, that it be applicable to everyone,” Fernandez said in a speech in Paris. Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan also came out in strong support of Russia’s action in Crimea. China and India have, however, been more circumspect in their support of Russia. The issue of self-determination for disputed territories is a delicate issue for both the governments. China has to deal with separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang and the question of reunification with Taiwan. For India, it is the Kashmir issue, which the international community has recognised as a territorial dispute since the early fifties. Both the countries do not want Crimea to be a precedent. China had abstained in the UN Security Council on the resolution condemning the referendum in Crimea in the third week of March and did not join Russia in vetoing the resolution. President Obama had a meeting the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the Hague summit to canvass support against Moscow. President Xi, while voicing support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, has at the same time refrained from saying anything critical about Russia’s actions in Crimea. President Putin had made it a point to call up the Chinese president and the Indian prime minister after the crisis erupted. The Russian president has publicly thanked India and China for their understanding and support. ILLEGITIMATE GOVT IN KIEV The new Ukrainian government itself is being viewed as illegitimate having replaced a duly elected government by using violent means and outside support. Washington and the EU had lent a helping hand in the overthrow of the democratically elected president. As was to be expected, Washington has taken the lead in condemning Moscow. President Barack Obama, in a speech in Brussels, made a vitriolic attack saying that Russia was “challenging truths” and that the borders of Europe “cannot be redrawn by force.” The US president went to the extent of whitewashing previous American military interventions, including those in Kosovo and Iraq. European leaders have been more restrained in their criticism of Russia. Germany, the most influential EU member, has strong economic and energy ties with Russia. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has supported the EU’s move to cut its long term dependence on Russian oil and gas supplies. A former German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, is however of the view that Russia’s action in the Crimea are “completely justifiable.” Many of the Russian oligarchs have parked their funds in London, the financial hub of Europe. The EU does ten times as much trade with Russia as the US. The Obama administration’s decision to target a few oligarchs and plans to impose economic sanctions could hurt European governments more in the long run. Some Russian commentators say that Putin will not be unhappy of the financial clout of the oligarchs, who made their fortunes in the days of Boris Yeltsin is further diminished. Russia has imposed counter sanctions on US and Canadian businessmen and officials. The G­7 leaders meeting in the Hague in the last week of March unanimously took the decision to suspend Russia from the G­8. The G­8 summit was scheduled to be held in Sochi later this year. The G­7 leaders issued a statement condemning what they termed as “Russia’s illegal attempts to annex Crimea in contravention to international law.” The G­7 leaders warned that they are ready to “intensify actions” that could have a “significant impact” on the Russian economy. In his landmark speech to the Russian Parliament announcing Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian Federation, President Putin had given an assurance that there would be no further moves to “split Ukraine,” despite the growing clamour in the Russian speaking parts of Eastern Ukraine for breaking away from Kiev. In the US, both Democrats and Republican lawmakers are unhappy with lukewarm steps most European nations have taken so far against Russia. The EU is far from united on dealing with Russia. Many European leaders realise that a showdown with Moscow at this juncture would have a negative impact on their economic recovery programs. Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy and Cyprus would be particularly affected if the economic warfare between the West and Russia escalates. KIEV’S BONHOMIE WITH NATO; US-EU FUNDING The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, after a meeting with his American counterpart, John Kerry, at the Hague, stressed on the need for the new government in Kiev to institute constitutional reforms “that would take into consideration the interests of all the Ukrainian regions.” According to Lavrov, that is the only way that the current political crisis in the country could be resolved. Lavrov had, for the first time, a meeting with the newly appointed Ukrainian foreign minister, Andrei Deschytsia, on the sidelines of the summit at the Hague. This was another strong indication that Moscow is keen to calm the diplomatic waters and that Russia does not intend to move militarily beyond the Crimean peninsula. But the interim government in Kiev is using the secession of Crimea to forge closer military and economic ties with NATO and the EU. In the third week of March, the government which lacks a popular mandate, signed a political association agreement with the EU. It was President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign such an agreement that led to his overthrow. The Russian foreign minister was of the view that Kiev should have waited for the formation of a popularly elected government before rushing into an agreement with Brussels. One of the first things the pro­western leaders now running the government did was calling for the deployment of NATO troops in the country. The government is mobilising its army and allotted more than 600 million dollars to bolster its military defences. The US and EU are providing the necessary funding for a newly created 60,000 strong “National Guard.” The leadership of the new force will be under the neo­fascist and right wing politicians belonging to parties like the Svoboda and the Right Sector. There are already signs of disunity in the “interim” government. A notorious paramilitary leader of the “Right Sector,” Oleksandr Muzychko, who had played a leading role in violent demonstrations in the Maidan, was killed by Ukrainian security forces in late March. The Ukrainian defence minister, Ihor Tenyukh, who was appointed only in February has been removed from office. He has been blamed for the fiasco faced by Ukrainian military units trapped in their bases in Crimea. In the last week of March, Ukraine withdrew all its remaining troops from the Crimea. The former prime minister of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko, a darling of the West, was caught on tape calling for the annihilation of Russians. She was talking to one of her confidants after the Crimea and Sevastapol accession treaty was signed. “This is really beyond all boundaries. It is about time we grab our guns and go kill all katsyaps together with their leader,” she was heard saying in the phone conversation which has been since uploaded on YouTube. Katsyaps is a derogatory Ukrainian word for Russians. For good measure, she added that if she was in power “there would be no f­­­­­g way they would get Crimea.” Tymoshenko has not denied that the voice on the tape is hers but has accused Russian intelligence of doctoring it. The NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, pledged a new partnership with Ukraine after a recent visit to Kiev. The proposed partnership includes development of ties with the Ukrainian military as well as the expansion of joint drills. The NATO chief announced that NATO would henceforth “more actively involve Ukraine in its multinational projects regarding the development of military potential.” Poland, a NATO member since 2004, has announced plans to form a multinational military brigade that would include Ukraine and Lithuania. There are efforts to draw in Georgia and Azerbaijan into this alliance which would be a cat’s paw for NATO. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Erdogan, has threatened to close the Bosphorus Straits for Russian shipping in case there is violence against the Crimean Tatar minority. Turkey, a NATO member, had sent its military to create the so called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in 1983. Turkey had intervened on the pretext of protecting their compatriots on the island from the Greek Cypriots. OMINOUS NATO MOVES IN EASTERN EUROPE In his speech to the Russian Parliament, Putin underlined the threat posed by the western military alliance knocking at the country’s doors. “NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against a military alliance, and we are having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors,” remarked Putin. Sevastipol on the Black Sea is Russia’s only all weather naval base. During his visit to the NATO headquarters in Brussels, the American president stressed on the need to further strengthen the military grouping in the wake of recent events in Ukraine. He urged the European nations to contribute more for the strengthening of NATO. Most European nations have sharply curtailed their military budgets after the end of the cold war. The American president also referred to the importance of Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which requires member states to come to each other’s aid in case of a military attack. Washington had been working overtime to get Ukraine and Georgia to be NATO members for a long time. The US has military bases in all the NATO member states that surround Russia. The ongoing effort to expand NATO and the EU does not bode well for lasting peace and tranquillity in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Russia has many diplomatic cards to play yet. Washington needs Moscow’s help to deal with Iran in the ongoing nuclear talks. Russia is in a position to ease the draconian sanctions regime on Iran by engaging in barter trade that would enable Teheran to sell more of its oil. Moscow’s help will also be needed when American troops start withdrawing from Afghanistan and to deal with the bloody political aftermath the withdrawal is sure to trigger in that country. Russia and the US are also engaged in finding a resolution to the crisis in Syria. Though President Obama has said that he does not consider accession of Crimea to the Russian Union a “done deal,” Washington will have to reconcile with the facts on the ground and start doing business as usual with Moscow again. Russia after all is not the USSR and there is no great ideological divide between the two countries.