How Putin’s annexation of Crimea will backfire

Volodymyr Valkov Human Rights Activist

LVIV — There will be many costs to Putin’s regime as a result of Russia’s soon-to-be-finalized annexation of Crimea. First of all Russia can no longer be considered a reliable partner. From now on Ukraine will be particularly distrustful of Russia as a neighbor. The anxiety in the hearts of vast majority of Ukrainians, especially the younger generation, will be there to stay for decades to come. This will leave a huge dent in the Soviet doctrine of ‘brotherly’ connection between Russia and Ukraine and in the modern Russian doctrine of ‘common Slavic values.’

Another consequence of the forceful occupation of Crimea will be the weakening of the foundation of the international system because the failure to enforce the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances will signify that the solemn guarantees given by the international community carry little value in practice. If Russia fully annexes and cements its control over parts of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, the international system of strategic checks and balances will fall apart. We won’t have to wait for very long before various rogue and authoritarian states will create their respective justifications to, for example, acquire nuclear weapons or annex certain territories.

The invasion of Crimea by the Russian Federation has already galvanized Ukrainian society. Moreover, the concept of the what constitutes the Ukrainian identity has started to become much more inclusive. Thanks to the emphasis that Russia is trying so hard to put on the existence of a threat to the Russian language and culture in Ukraine, the overwhelming numbers of Ukrainians began speaking publicly about their support for the shared concept of Ukrainian identity that includes all national minorities living in Ukraine. This will further solidify the sense of Ukrainian nationhood. At the same time, the current concept of national identity in the Russian Federation is becoming increasingly exclusive.

Putin’s Crimean affair could also precipitate Ukraine’s integration with Western democratic institutions such as NATO and the EU. Ukraine will need to join those institutions in order to ensure its complete withdrawal from the Russia’s sphere of influence — though NATO treaty rules currently forbid accession of any country involved in a territorial dispute. This marks a significant shift from 2008, when around 40 percent of the population of Ukraine viewed NATO as a threat. Some of the most credible polls back then confirmed this view. Since the Russian incursion into Crimea there hasn’t yet been a formal survey of public opinion regarding Ukraine’s accession to NATO, but several of the largest media outlets (including UNIAN and TSN) recently conducted online surveys. The results are striking. Between 60-79 percent support the move to join NATO and about 62 percent support accession to the EU. This stands in contrast to the 2010 survey that showed 51 percent of the population in favor of joining the EU.

Some parts of the Ukrainian population, especially the Communists and those who strongly identify with Soviet nostalgia will continue to fiercely oppose Ukraine building a capable military, which means multilateral cooperation will be key.

If Ukraine becomes a prosperous state, this will provide Europe with a possible antidote to the problems of Russian dependencies like Transnistria and Russia’s imperial ambitions in general. A successful and independent Ukrainian state will a serve as convincing evidence that democracy works. This will encourage other breakaway regions in the Russian sphere of influence to reintegrate with their original homelands, or at least to step out of the Russian backyard.

What good is there really for Putin in making Ukraine an ever more corrupt or even failed state? Wouldn’t Ukraine as a successful trading partner be more profitable even for Russia? Soviet Union brought Chernobyl to Ukraine. What will Putin’s Russia bring? On the other hand, can Putin help create a successful Crimea? In fact, he is neither interested in, nor capable of bringing prosperity to the peninsula. Soon after Crimea becomes a Russian satellite similar to Transnistria, disenchantment of the local residents and perhaps even insurgency led by Crimean Tatars are likely to follow.

After the pro-forma “referendum” on March 16 — or rather an outrageously fabricated political action aimed at justifying Russian annexation of Crimea — the only minorities facing a palpable threat are Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. More than a week prior to the fake “referendum,” The Tatars, Crimea’s indigenous people who strongly support Ukraine’s territorial integrity, issued a plea an intervention by the United Nations. Ivan Simonovic, UN Assistant-Secretary General for Human Rights, reported just a couple of days before fake referendum that there were already many Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians and even Russians leaving the Crimean peninsula and becoming displaced people.

Putin’s KGB training means that his main concern will always rest with power politics, not the real well-being of his own countrymen and certainly not of those in neighboring states. Has Russia brought growth to Transnistria? Abkhazia? South Ossetia? Nagorno-Karabakh? The message of Russia’s foreign policy is loud and clear — assertion of its superiority in what it considers its backyard.

Relationships with Russia are never mutually beneficial. Decisions are never collegiate. Putin and his ruling elite want the ‘near abroad’ to be subservient. The Collective Security Treaty Organization and Customs Union are designed with this purpose in mind — to bring about Kremlin’s military and economic domination over the post-Soviet space. The key difference from the Soviet Union is that Russia will not be responsible for any of the damage to the societies in the nominally independent nations trapped in these arrangements.

Weak Ukraine gives some sort of glory to Putin’s accomplishments in Russia. It serves as a negative model for comparison to his Russia. Putin believes that by making Ukraine smaller, Russia looks greater. Deteriorating Ukraine justifies Putin’s management style and Russia’s need for a powerful, authoritarian and and iconic statesman. But during Putin’s 15 years in office has modern Russia really achieved progress: is it any less a kleptocracy then the Soviet Union? Is its population much wealthier or healthier? Russia’s population has dropped from 148.9 million in 1993 to 142.6 million in 2013.

True, people in Russia live somewhat better relative to the 1990s after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But this modest improvement is abominable when considering the lost opportunity, the degree of the living standard that normal Russians, not yesterday’s communist and chekist elite, could have had by now. The Kremlin is more interested in keeping the masses just satisfied enough to stay silent and obedient, allowing Putin’s clique their astronomical self-enrichment. Today this complacent clique is severing Russia’s ties with its formerly friendly neighbors and wrecking relations with the Euro Area, which, according to the World Bank, is Russia’s most important economic partner.

The cost of Putin’s conquest of Crimea is significant, but here are some of the benefits the Russian premier may be weighing. The situation in Crimea will divert the attention of the Russian people from domestic problems and dark economic prospects back at home. In Russia, it will occupy headlines for a couple of years. For some Russians Mr. Putin will appear as a national hero. A major avenue or square in Crimea will be named in Putin’s honor to celebrate Crimea’s reunification with its historic motherland. The unfolding crisis will serve as a military reality show to engross Putin’s electorate. Unfortunately, for those living in Crimea it will be a horror movie, a catastrophic reality.

The Kremlin can expand the rubble zone and add 1 million people to its population. Crimea’s gas and other raw materials and mineral resources will go to Russian companies. The Crimean population can become a source of cheap labor force to build dachas around Moscow, while new Russians will purchase the rest of the seashore in Crimea to build their fourth and fifth villas.

Putin will probably try to offer incentives for the Crimean population to resettle to the Russia’s Far East to counteract the demographic and economic influence from China there.

Russia might be able to build up forces and even set-up missile defense systems in its satellite regions to counterbalance the U.S. missile defense plans. Russia has already become uncontrollably dangerous. Since December 2007 it has suspended the CFE Treaty, disallowing data exchanges and inspections. Does the world really know the extent of Russian weaponry?

After Putin’s Crimean anschluss, he can continue to exert destabilizing pressure on Ukraine through the pro-Russian groups located here, as well as the Ukrainian Communists in order to impose federalization and neutrality on Ukraine. If this project succeeds then Ukraine’s integration as a whole into Western institutions will be impossible.

Russia, a multiethnic and multiconfessional state, has put Russian ethnic nationalism at the core of its foreign policy, which leaves many states vulnerable to the same interventionist arguments that we are now seeing at play in Ukraine. The secession of Crimea from Ukraine that is being orchestrated by Russia and its ‘unidentified armed men’ is a direct analogy to the Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938, which also involved a referendum. It is ironic that just like Hitler in 1936, Mr. Putin embarked upon the annexation of another state after hosting the 2014 Olympic Games. Hopefully Putin will remember that ‘”the important thing is not to win, but to take part.”

With international support, Ukraine, long-considered by some analysts as a centerpiece to completing modern-day Russian empire, could become a key to the unravelling of Putin’s regime. At the very least, Russian meddling could lead to an irreversible disillusionment with Putin’s foreign policy goals.