Unkept Russian promises
By Barrie Dunsmore | March 16,2014
About 2 million people live on the Crimean peninsula — at least 60 percent of them ethnic Russians. Since 1954 Crimea has been a part of Ukraine but for centuries before that, it was an integral part of Russia. Until a couple of weeks ago, Crimea would not have sprung to mind as the place where the Cold War would suddenly be reborn. If at all, it may be remembered by history buffs as the site of the mid-19th century Crimean War in which Britain, France and Turkey defeated Russia.
Crimea had one other brief fling with international fame in February 1945. That’s when Yalta, the former Crimean vacation home of the Russian czars, was the site of the final World War II conference of the Big Three as they were known then: Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. It was at Yalta that history-making decisions about the post-war world were made, and Yalta became synonymous for the promises Stalin made there about freedom for Eastern Europe, promises which he had no intention of keeping.
As it happens, an unkept Russian promise is also at issue in the latest dispute between Russia and Ukraine. That is playing out today as the people of Crimea are voting in a referendum, hastily organized by Moscow and under the intimidating presence of thousands of Russian troops. Not surprisingly, a majority is widely expected to vote to secede from Ukraine and to re-join Russia.
The United States and the European Union have publicly stated that they will not recognize the results of the secession referendum. Among other things, they say that by invading Crimea, Russia is in violation of an international agreement that it signed in December of 1994. Under that agreement, Ukraine surrendered its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the United States and Britain including their pledge to respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
President Obama repeated Friday that while he still hoped for a diplomatic solution, the U.S. and its allies “stand united.” And he warned, “There will be consequences if Russia violates the territorial integrity and sovereignty of its neighbor.”
By once again holding large military exercises along Ukraine’s eastern border, Putin has raised alarm bells in Washington and every European capital and especially with the interim Ukrainian government in Kiev. They all fear Putin may be preparing for a major invasion.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel strongly rebuked the Kremlin for the new buildup and warned that, “If Russia continues on its present course, it will not only be a catastrophe for Ukraine ... this would cause massive damage to Russia economically and politically.”
Merkel’s threat is highly significant, because of all the Western European countries, Germany has the largest economic and business ties with Russia and was previously thought might be reluctant to join any tough new sanctions.
Merkel, who speaks Russian and gets along with Putin, thought of herself as a possible bridge between East and West. Her words seem to mean Europe will now be united in whatever steps it feels necessary to resolve this most serious international crisis since the end of the Cold War.
These new Russian troop movements became the focus of the Friday meeting in London, between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. That five hour meeting, originally called to discuss the Crimean referendum, was inconclusive. Secretary Kerry said afterward that Lavrov told him Putin was not prepared to do anything until after Sunday’s Crimean vote. They agreed only to remain in touch.
A coerced vote for secession does not mean that Crimea’s return to Russia is an instant fait accompli. It may change a few things in Crimea itself, but if most of the world refuses to accept the results, Crimea’s international status will remain in limbo. What happens next is what will matter.
If Russia proceeds to formally annex Crimea after the vote that will be bad. But if President Putin decides to use this crisis as an opportunity to invade the substantially ethnic Russian regions of eastern and southern Ukraine under the pretext that he is merely trying to “protect” the Russian speakers, then all bets are off. I believe that would provoke Kiev into war with Russia. And the United States, the European Union and NATO would then be forced to decide what to do about this major threat to European security and stability. That is the worst case scenario and is certainly possible.
There is no shortage of advice from the punditocracy about what to do in Ukraine. But for me, one op-ed from a man I know quite well and respect but don’t always agree with, stands out from nearly all the rest. In a column published in the Washington Post on March 5, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger offered an important historical perspective to understanding the Ukraine crisis, along with his “principles” for ending it. The situation has worsened since then, but such principles could still be applied. I commend the entire column to you, but here are a few of his key thoughts:
“Public discussion on Ukraine is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going?”
“Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other.”
“Ukraine should not join NATO.”
“It is incompatible with the rules of existing world order for Russia to annex Crimea.”
“A wise U.S. policy toward Ukraine would seek a way for the two parts of the country (pro Europe and pro Russia) to cooperate with each other. We should seek reconciliation - not the domination of a faction.”
I feel that is essentially the message Barack Obama is trying to send to Vladimir Putin. It remains to be seen if he will accept it.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former ABC foreign correspondent. He lives in Charlotte.