Crimea’s Spiraling Crisis Is The Whole World’s Problem

Tensions are high between Ukraine and Russia, as an 18-month ceasefire falters, and Putin is in no mood to back down

Tensions are rising along with military activity in Crimea — REUTERS
Aug 15, 2016 at 11:13 AM ET

A crisis in Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia from Ukraine two years ago, is developing with a speed that is alarming even for this volatile part of the world.

Amid the U.S. presidential campaign, Brexit, and the Islamic State’s terror attacks, many in the West might be tempted to dismiss the latest escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine as little more than a local squabble. They would be wrong. The dispute over Crimea pits Ukraine—a US ally—directly against Russia. And the Kremlin, with the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear warheads, is in no mood to back down.

The crisis—and there is little doubt that this is one—began on Wednesday, when Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of two deadly attempts to infiltrate “saboteurs” into the peninsula. Putin called the attacks “criminal,” and vowed a response.

Although it produced no photographs or video of the alleged incursions, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), said a secret police officer and a Russian solider had been killed in the fighting. It also said it had captured a Ukrainian intelligence officer named Yevhen Panov during the incursions. During extensive footage of his interrogation by state television, Panov confessed to planning terrorist attacks in Crimea, including on a chemicals factory. Bruises and cuts were visible on his face. Human rights activists say Russia has a long history of extracting confessions through torture.

Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, denied Putin’s claims, calling them “insane,” and a bid to justify a new Russian military offensive in Crimea or eastern Ukraine, where Kremlin-backed separatists have carved out two so-called people’s republics. He also ordered Ukraine’s army, which is dwarfed by Russia’s armed forces, onto full combat alert. Poroshenko’s comments came after a presidential spokesman, Andrei Lysenko, said Ukraine was expecting a Russian military attack at “any moment.”

The US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, outright accused Russia of lying over the alleged incursions. “Russia has a record of frequently levying false accusations at Ukraine to deflect attention from its own illegal actions,” he said.

Also on Thursday, Russia announced the start of naval drills in the Black Sea. In a further move, it cut off internet services in northern Crimea, where the alleged incursions were reported to have taken place, for “security reasons.” The same evening, the United Nations Security Council convened to discuss the mounting crisis.

Speaking after the closed-door meeting in New York, Volodymyr Yelchenko, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UN, said that some 40,000 Russia troops were massed on Crimea’s de facto border with his homeland. Crimean Tatar activists oppose to Russian rule said earlier this month that Moscow had begun deploying tanks and other military hardware to the region.

It was on Friday, however that events really began to move. First, Russia’s prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, said Russia could break off diplomatic relations with Kiev. Next, Russia deployed its advanced S-400 air defense missile system to Crimea. Although Russia had earlier stated it planned to deploy the missiles—capable of destroying air-borne targets at distance of up to 250 miles—the timing of their eventual delivery to Crimea on Friday was a clear statement of intent.

In a move that may or may not have been related to the Crimea crisis, Mr. Putin also dismissed on Friday the Kremlin chief of staff, a long-time hawkish ally named Sergei Ivanov. Ivanov’s successor was Anton Vaino, whose surname Russians were quick to point out is an anagram of the Russian word for “war”—“voina.”

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau was not guilty of hyperbole when she called the Russian-Ukrainian stand-off a “very dangerous situation.”  Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and the United States is not obliged to defend it from a Russian attack, a fresh military campaign by the Kremlin in Ukraine would add to an atmosphere of increasingly tense international relations between Russia and the West, already exacerbated by Putin’s support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

Putin has previously boasted that Russia’s newly modernized army would be able to capture Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in just two weeks. He has also said that he warned US and European leaders in no uncertain terms not to interfere with Russia’s seizure of Crimea in March 2014. Speaking to state television last year, Putin said he had told them he was prepared to put Russia’s nuclear weapons on full alert, if they refused to comply with his demands. “No one wanted to start a world conflict,” Putin observed, wryly.

Although the West made no military attempt to prevent the Kremlin’s takeover of Crimea, or the deployment of its troops to eastern Ukraine, the United States and Europe imposed economic sanctions on Russia in response. These sanctions, twinned with low global prices for oil, the linchpin of Russia’s economy, have sent the Russian economy into tailspin, with 23 million people—16% of the country’s population—now living below a poverty line of just $170 a month. This state of affairs represents an embarrassment for Putin, who has prided himself on restoring “a sense of stability” since he came to power amid post-Soviet chaos in 2000. With Russia running out of money fast, Putin needs the sanctions eased, and quickly. Russia’s sudden entry into the Syria conflict was widely seen as bid to persuade the West to lift them—and an outcome that was initially hinted at by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Not even the most pessimistic analysts believe that Putin plans to capture Kiev. After all, an invasion of the former Soviet republic would plunge Russian troops into a near unwinnable guerilla war with Ukrainians in Kiev and elsewhere in the pro-European West of the country. But Putin is nothing if not unpredictable, and if he were to march on Kiev, there is very little the West could actually do to stop him—assuming it wants to avoid a potentially apocalyptic conflict—beyond ramping up economic sanctions to include cutting Russia off from the Swift banking system, one of the core frameworks of international finance. Removing access to Swift would leave Russian banks unable to do business with each other, and would plunge the country’s economy into an even greater crisis. But even this would be thwart with risks—last year, Moscow warned its reaction to such a move would be “without limits.”

Given all this, if Russia did engineer the current crisis, the obvious question is—why now? That’s a question that even many seasoned Russia watchers are scrambling to come up with an answer for. One theory that has gained some traction is that Putin is seeking to rally Russians around the flag ahead of the September 18 parliamentary elections. After all, it’s worked before. Russia’s seizure of Crimea, which was gifted to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, in 1954, saw Putin’s domestic approval ratings rise to more than 80 per cent.

And although the ruling United Russia party is certain of victory at next year’s vote, despite the economic downturn, there are signs—albeit minor ones—that Putin’s popularity is starting to decline. A recent opinion poll by the independent, Moscow-based Levada Center found that Russians are growing indifferent to the former KGB officer.

Another suggestion is that Putin might be attempting to derail peace talks on eastern Ukraine. The purported logic of Putin’s thinking is that if Russia can scupper international peace efforts, and pin the blame for their collapse on Ukraine, then it may leave the West with little option but to recognize its seizure of Crimea. President Barack Obama has stated that he would like to see progress—if not a permanent solution to the Ukraine conflict—before the end of his final term of office.

But amid all the speculation, one thing is starkly clear. Putin does not intend to give up Crimea. Any capitulation to Ukraine or the West would shatter his strongman image in the eyes of millions of Russians, and undermine the foundations of his almost 17-year-old rule. And for Putin, losing power, especially if his foes in the pro-democracy movement were to succeed him, would likely mean the loss of his own personal freedom. Or worse.