Dear Kremlin: Careful with Crimea

Why a Russian intervention in southern Ukraine could rebound against Moscow.

Vasiliy BATANOV/AFP/Getty Images
Vasiliy BATANOV/AFP/Getty Images

Russia seems to have made a bad bet in Ukraine. Its foreign policy, tactically agile as ever, was strategically unsound. It was certainly possible, as Russia proved in November, to bribe Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign an association agreement with the European Union. It was also possible to promise a $15 billion loan in return for a policy of repression in Ukraine. After accepting the money in principle, Yanukovych illegally forced a package of legislation through parliament that was closely modeled on similar laws in Moscow restricting freedom of speech and assembly. Right after the Kremlin freed up a $2 billion tranche of the promised loan, the Yanukovych regime gave orders for the mass shooting of protesters.

Yet all did not turn out as planned. Moscow’s strategic goal was to draw Ukraine into the Eurasian Union. This institution, meant to rival the European Union, will come into being in 2015. The prospective members at this point are Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, none of which can be accused of a democratic surplus. Putin has made clear that for him the Eurasian Union is meaningless without Ukraine. He, like everyone else, understands that the Russian empire without Ukraine is without glory. But the Eurasian Union cannot possibly have democratic members, since their citizens, in trading with and emigrating to Russia, would spread dangerous ideas. Thus, Ukraine had to become a dictatorship.

The problem with this was the Ukrainians themselves. Instead of backing down in the face of batons, rubber bullets, and a sniper massacre, they made a revolution. Although this amounted to an act of almost unbelievable self-organization, determination, and simple physical courage, it would not have happened without Russian foreign policy. If the Kremlin had no Eurasian dream, it would not need to be so concerned about the character of the Ukrainian regime and the suppression of Ukrainian civil society. It was precisely the mass killing last week that made the Yanukovych regime inconceivable in Ukraine, not just to its opponents but to many of its allies. Now, Yanukovych has fled and parliamentary rule has been restored to Ukraine.

In overreaching, the Kremlin has lost a leader it could manipulate, and provoked the kind of revolution that its propaganda apparatus likes to blame on Washington and that its foreign policy is designed to stop. What now? There seem to be two alternatives. One would be a reconsideration of the totality of Russian foreign policy, and a genuine recognition that both Russia and Ukraine have, first and foremost, an interest in good relations with their common major trading partner, the European Union, as well as with each other.

The other alternative is to deny reality and continue to pursue the Eurasian dream. This would entail maintaining the line Moscow has so far taken in the crisis, namely that Ukrainian activists are fascists, terrorists, and gays. It could, perhaps, also translate into a Russian attempt to lay claim to some part of Ukraine. The greatest potential for mischief is to be found in the Crimean Peninsula, in the extreme south, where Russia has a naval base and where much of the population is ethnically Russian. (The photo above shows members of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet at their base in Sevastopol, Ukraine.) The policy which seems to be under consideration in Moscow has three parts: first, to claim, as Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has already done, that Russian interests in Ukraine are under threat; second, to extend Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens in Crimea; and third, to claim a right of protection — which, in the case of Russia’s neighbors, Georgia and Moldova, has already resulted in the creation of Russian protectorates. As of this writing, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is on alert, and a Russian parliamentarian is in Crimea discussing passports and the possibility of a Russian annexation.

It should go without saying that an attempt to seize Ukrainian territory would be a disaster in the short run, ruining Russian credibility around the world and likely starting a major war. In the long term, such an action, even if it were to succeed, would set a rather troubling precedent — for Russia itself.

If Russia excludes its own borders from the general international standard of inviolability, it might face some unwanted challenges down the road. If Russia’s external frontiers are flexible zones, to be pushed in various ways with appeals to the rights of ethnic brethren and passport holders, then what will happen, down the line, in Russia’s eastern Siberia? There, Russia holds major natural resources along its border with China, the world’s longest. Some 6 million Russian citizens in eastern Siberia face 90 million Chinese in China’s bordering provinces.

Beijing pays attention to Ukraine because it has a major stake in Ukrainian agricultural territories. It will likely note the developing Russian doctrine on the flexibility of Russia’s external borders. China also has a stake in eastern Siberia. It needs fresh water, hydrocarbons, mineral resources such as copper and zinc, and fertile soil for its farmers. The Chinese economic relationship with eastern Siberia is a colonial one: China buys raw materials and sells finished goods. Beijing actually invests more in eastern Siberia than does Moscow. No one knows the exact number of Chinese citizens in eastern Siberia — in part because the last Russian census declined to count them — but it certainly dwarfs the number of Russians in Crimea, and is expected by Russian analysts to increase significantly with time.

It seems rather risky for Russia to develop, on its own border, a challenge to the basic premise of territorial sovereignty. Beijing and Moscow currently enjoy good relations, and Chinese leaders are too sophisticated to consider open threats to eastern Siberia. But down the road, as demographic pressures mount and Russian resources beckon, a Russian doctrine of the ethnic adjustments of Russian borders could provide Beijing with a useful model.

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and the author of On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom. His newest book, Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty From a Hospital Diary, will be published in September. Twitter: @TimothyDSnyder

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