Monday, March 3, 2014

The Crimean Standoff

Brief History

Crimea is not new to conflicts. Crimea, a peninsula separating the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, has been at the centre of military and commercial competition throughout history. The Romans set up naval bases there as early as the first century AD, ancient peoples from the Scythians to Byzantine Greeks used it as a base for farming and maritime commerce, and empires clashed over it as a prime Black Sea possession for centuries. Russia took possession in 1783.

In the mid-1800s, Britain and France, backing the feeble Ottoman sultan, fought the Russian empire over Crimea – and more importantly, its importance for control of the passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Then, as now, Sevastopol was home to the Russian Black Sea fleet, and the European powers fought furiously to seize it. Although the Crimean War ended in an effective stalemate, its fierce and epic battles left a lasting mark on European memory, including the Battle of Balaklava that inspired Alfred Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade and, years later, Rudyard Kipling’s The Last of the Light Brigade.
In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula as a gift to Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine. At the time, neither he nor anyone else foresaw the Soviet Union’s collapse. But collapse it did, and Crimea stayed within newly independent Ukraine in 1992 as an autonomous region. The Russian fleet, though, settled in the only deep-water port providing access to Western markets, has been an irritant between Moscow and Kiev ever since.

Civil Strife and Intervention

The ongoing crisis in Crimea began with Euromaidan (literally meaning Eurosquare) a wave of ongoing demonstrations, civil unrest and revolution in Ukraine, which began on the night of 21 November 2013 in the Ukrainian capital Kiev with public protests demanding closer European integration. The scope of the protests expanded, with many calls for the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych and his government. The events led to the downfall of the government of Yanukovych. The Russian military intervention in Ukraine began in the aftermath of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, when, on 1 March 2014, Russian troops (with no insignia on their uniforms) seized control of most of the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine located on the northern coast of the Black Sea, including civil buildings, airports, and military bases. The same day, the Russian legislature approved the use of the Russian military in Ukraine, and Russian officials stated that their military forces in Crimea were not a breach of existing agreements between Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian response has so far been muted, with no military action on the part of Ukraine's government, which was formed in Kiev a few days before the intervention. The Russian military intervention has been compared to what Adolf Hitler had done in Sudetenland in the 1930s when he moved his troops into a region of what was Czechoslovakia at that time, with a regional ethnic German majority. The Russian move is also being compared to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Russian Interests and Strategy
Russia’s role in this unfolding crisis flows uniquely from its geography and its history. As Ukraine’s eastern neighbour, Russia shares a strategic border as well as a tortured history together as part of the former Soviet Union. What happens in Ukraine matters mightily to Moscow. Ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Moscow has been extremely wary of the expanding the North Atlantic Alliance. Since its collapse, former satellite states of the Soviet Union, namely, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria have joined the NATO. So also, some of the former republics of the erstwhile Soviet Union, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also joined the Western Alliance. 

Putin’s been cautioning the U.S. and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization states for at least six years not to impede Russian interests in Ukraine, particularly in Crimea, where the Black Sea Fleet has been based since its founding by Catherine the Great in 1783 after the Ottoman Empire ceded the peninsula.

Putin told a closed NATO summit in Romania in 2008 that the military alliance was threatening Ukraine’s very existence by courting it as a member, according to a secret cable published by Wikileaks. Putin said Ukraine’s borders were “sewn together” after World War II and its claims to Crimea, which belonged to Russia until Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954, are legally dubious, Kurt Volker, the U.S. ambassador to NATO at the time, said in the cable. Russia also strongly opposed US plans for a missile shield in Europe.

According to some experts, Russia’s willingness to intervene and escalate a conflict is a sign of panic at what it sees as a possible loss of influence in Ukraine as a result of the Maidan revolution. Russia probably did not foresee the fall of Yanukovych. Moscow seemed to have outmaneuvered the European Union (EU) by offering Yanukovych a $ 15 billion bail out package as a quid pro quo for not signing an association agreement with the EU. Had the agreement with the EU been signed, it would have meant one another former Soviet republic joining the Western fold.

Mr. Putin has fought bitterly to defend what the Kremlin calls its "sphere of privileged interests" in former Soviet republics. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has inserted itself into ethnic conflicts with neighboring states to assert its influence. In 2008 it invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia to defend the breakaway region of South Ossetia. South Ossetia and Abkhazia were subsequently recognised by Moscow as separate states, though effectively protectorates of Russia.

Mr. Putin is taking a much bigger gamble in Ukraine because the loss of influence there could deal a blow to his presidency. Many Russians still struggle to see Ukraine as an independent country, given the bonds of history and religious ties.

Crimea is even closer, having been Russian territory until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine, then a Soviet republic. When the Soviet Union collapsed Crimea remained part of newly independent Ukraine, despite its majority of ethnic Russians.

The Budapest Memorandum

Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is an international treaty signed on 5 December 1994 in the Hungarian capital Budapest by Ukraine, the US, Russia and the United Kingdom concerning the nuclear disarmament of Ukraine and its security relationship with the signatory countries. The terms of the memorandum is seen as being violated by Russia's military intervention.

According to the memorandum, Russia, the USA, and the UK confirmed, in recognition of Ukraine becoming party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and in effect abandoning its nuclear arsenal to Russia that they would:

·         Respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its existing borders.

·         Refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine.

·         Refrain from using economic pressure on Ukraine in order to influence its politics.

·         Seek United Nations Security Council action if nuclear weapons are used against Ukraine.

·         Refrain from the use of nuclear arms against Ukraine.

·         Consult with one another if questions arise regarding these commitments.

Russia, by its actions is seen not only to be in breach of international law and the provisions of the UN Charter in general, but also the provisions of the Budapest Memorandum.

Strategic importance of Sevastopol

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moscow refused to recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty over the port city of Sevastopol and the surrounding Crimean oblast on the ground that the city (Sevastopol) was never integrated into Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The issue was resolved with the signing of a treaty in 1997 wherein the Russian naval base was allowed to be located in the city on a 20-year renewable lease.
The Crimean port of Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea fleet, is vital to Russia’s naval power in the Mediterranean and beyond. As such the base is of critical importance as Russia seeks to regain some of the global clout that has been dwindling since the disintegration of the Soviet empire.

“In the past five to 10 years, there has been a resurgence in Russian naval operations, particularly in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean,” says Lee Willett, a naval analyst at IHS Jane’s, the security consultancy. “Sevastopol has been an important hub to project Russian naval power.”

Under agreements signed with Ukraine in 2010, the Russian military can continue to use Sevastopol until 2042, with an option of extending the lease to 2047.

The base’s significance was highlighted during the 2008 war with Georgia, when the Russian fleet staged blockades in the Black Sea and was used to launch amphibious landings. It has also proved its usefulness to Russia in the Libya crisis, anti-piracy missions in the Indian Ocean and Moscow’s role in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons.

After Syria’s civil war forced Russia to stop using its naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus last year, Sevastopol became even more crucial.

Can the US and Europe respond effectively?

The bitter fact is that the US and the West failed to anticipate the Russian military intervention in Crimea. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine is another indicator of the failure of Obama Administration’s foreign policy. Beyond strong words and economic sanctions which may have little or no bite, there is very little that the Obama Administration can do. President Obama’s warning and telephonic discussions has had very little effect on Russia. On the contrary, Crimea seems to have been subdued without a single shot being fired.

“There have been strong words from the US and other counties and NATO,” said Keir Giles, a Russian military analyst at the Chatham House think tank in London. “But these are empty threats. There is really not a great deal that can be done to influence the situation.”

US officials say they are in discussions now with European officials about Obama and other leaders possibly skipping the Group of Eight economic summit scheduled for June in Sochi, the site of the just-concluded Winter Olympics. Obama’s top advisers gathered at the White House Saturday to discuss other options.

The White House appears to be giving no serious consideration to American military involvement in Ukraine. In his carefully worded statement Friday, Obama avoided saying that a destabilized Ukraine would be a national security concern for the US. Instead, he said only that it was “not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia or Europe.”

In Europe, officials expressed concern about the Russian military escalation, but offered few specific options for stopping or punishing Putin. The European Union, dealing with its own internal problems, has appeared reluctant to fully embrace troubled Ukraine or risk the economic consequences of confronting Russia, one of its largest trading partners.

The US has its own limitations which prevent it from formulating a robust response. Its efforts to punish Russia on Ukraine have been complicated by the White House’s need for Russian cooperation on stopping Syria’s civil war, negotiating a nuclear accord with Iran, and transporting American troops and equipment out of Afghanistan through Russian supply routes.

The crisis may also prove to be a game-changer for President Barack Obama's national security policy, forcing him re-think his foreign policy shift to Asia and to maintain U.S. troop levels in Europe to limit Russia's reach.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has so far dismissed the few specific threats from the United States, which include scrapping plans for Obama to attend an international summit in Russia this summer and cutting off trade talks sought by Moscow. Because Ukraine does not have full-member status in NATO, the US and Europe have no obligation to come to its defense. And broader international action through the United Nations seems all but impossible, given Russia’s veto power as a member of the Security Council. 

Last summer, Washington threatened Moscow with cancellation of a bilateral summit between Obama and Putin as it pressed Russia to return National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden to the United States.

When Russia instead granted Snowden temporary asylum, Obama canceled his one-on-one meeting with Putin, but still attended an international meeting in St. Petersburg.

Another reason why economic pressures may not work is because Ukraine depends on Russia for 60 percent of its gas and is the main transit route for OAO Gazprom’s shipments to Europe, where the state-run company has a quarter of the market. Russia had halted gas flows to Ukraine in 2006 and 2009 — before Yanukovych’s presidency — amid disputes over prices and volumes, leading to shortages throughout Europe.

According to Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Center in Brussels, “President Putin doesn’t really care what the rest of the world thinks about his foreign policy,” Paul said by phone. “Ukraine is a neighbor country that Russia views as indivisible from itself. Russia is prepared to go to any length to stop Ukraine’s deeper integration with Europe.”  It remains to be seen, of course, if Russia extends its military campaign into Eastern Ukraine with the objective of partitioning the country, whether the West’s response may be different.

Sources: Financial Times, Wikipedia, BBC, The Globe and Mail, CNN


Pete said...

Hi Kumar

I haven't made up my mind whether Russia's takeover of Crimea is right or justified, The West lacks constructive options and credibility.

This is in view of France's determination to sell Russia the very weapons - amphibious assault ships - that would help Russia invade countries in future -

The US also continues to occupy Guantanamo Bay against Cuba's wishes on far more slender legal grounds than Russia-Crimea.

Economic sanctions against Russia's oil and gas exports would just be temporary economic vandalism.



Kumar said...

Hi Pete
Thanks for the comments. I agree with your views. Crimea, though geographically contiguous to Ukraine has been closer to Russia. But for Khrushchev gifting the region in 1954, Crimea would have been part of Russia after its collapse. Today, the West and Russia are trying to replay the games which were once played during the height of the Cold War. As I write this, the standoff continues with no amicable and practical solution in sight.

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