In just 48 hours, Russia took over and occupied Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula. The seizure of Crimea has created the greatest confrontation between Russia and the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russia is challenging the world order and so far, the West does not have an adequate response.
At an emergency meeting of the UN on Monday (March 3) evening, Russia found itself isolated. Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin maintained: “Russia’s goal in Crimea is to defend human rights, especially those of ethnic Russians”; that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war and that civilians have been killed; and that in a letter sent by deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Putin is asked to use the Russian armed forces to establish legitimacy, peace, law and order, and stability. All of this is pure fabrication; the crisis in the Crimea has been created and fueled by Moscow.
Saying that ethnic Russians in the Crimean Peninsula are under threat is totally groundless. However, the same cannot be said about the Crimean Tartars and Ukrainians living there today who are under threat from Russia, or, of course, minority and ethnic groups living in Russia. Crimea has a special status in the Ukrainian state, being the only autonomous republic in Ukraine, and Russians in Crimea are able to fully take advantage of their rights in every way possible. They would gain absolutely nothing being under Russian occupation or annexed to Russia — it is more a case of Russia getting a “consolation prize” for not being able to have Ukraine, and we cannot accept this. Ukraine’s Russian population is a pawn in a game that most people thought was over decades ago.
Russia has had around 16,000 troops deployed to Crimea since Feb. 24, and they have moved into every nook and cranny. Many wear uniforms without insignia so that Putin can claim that they are not Russian soldiers. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s propaganda machine is working overtime, spewing out ugly images, painting Ukraine as a country led by extremists and far-right radicals and selling a story that the Ukrainian authorities are terrorizing ethnic Russians. Given that Russian TV is watched by millions of households, not just in Russia but also in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet territory, this could be damaging and needs to be countered.
Ukraine’s interim government has managed to keep a relatively calm head. Ukraine does not want to give Russia any reason to start a shooting war. This is not easy. It is like having your home robbed and not being able to attack the thief. Russia is using the same approach it did in Georgia in 2008.
The response of the West has serous cracks. The EU is dithering, as usual. While heads of state talk tough, there is little appetite to sacrifice their own economies, and Putin knows it. The French defense industry makes billions from the Russians, and billions in Russian capital passes through London. Given that the UK is a signatory to the Budapest Memorandum, signed as part of the deal that saw Ukraine give up its nuclear weapons in 1994, this is particularly shameful. According to the agreement, the US, the UK and Russia agreed to protect the sovereignty and “territorial agreement” of Ukraine, meaning any Russian support for an attempt to declare Crimean independence would be in violation of their international obligations.
Germany is key. German Chancellor Angela Merkel seems to be signaling that it is too early to talk about sanctions and that there is a need to “de-escalate” the crisis and not paint Russia into a corner. There is a clear “values” versus “interests” issue for the EU. A special summit of heads of state will take place on Thursday. The US believes that the strongest weapon it has is economic. US President Barack Obama has indicated a readiness to go down this path as well as internationally isolating Russia. Meanwhile the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is set to deploy a monitoring mission to Crimea. It seems unlikely that Russia will abide by its international commitments and bring its troops back to their barracks. Putin must have calculated that the price of challenging the West over Ukraine was worth the gamble. The West must prove this wrong. If they don’t, it will be like a green light for Russia to do whatever it wants, wherever it wants.
This article first appeared in Today’s Zaman, a leading daily of Turkey.