While leaders of the Euromaidan movement strive to consolidate their authority, not all Ukrainian citizens are buying into the new order in Kyiv. In particular, Russian-speakers in Crimea, which only became a part of Ukraine in 1954, have become the focus of international attention for their defiance of the new authorities in Kyiv.
Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Crimea has exerted considerable emotional sway over nationalist elements in Russia: many still question the legitimacy of Nikita Khrushchev’s decision 60 years ago to transfer Crimea from Russia to Ukraine, and, deep down, some harbor dreams of righting what they consider a historical wrong. This factor naturally raises concerns about potential Russian meddling inCrimea. Already the Kremlin is engaging in saber-rattling, evidenced by Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s decision to place troops in western Russia on alert, and in statements made by defense officials that they are closely monitoring the situation in the Crimea.
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Fears of Crimean separatism are compounded by Russia’s uncomfortable proximity. And there is also the recent case of 2008, when the Russian army routed Georgian forces in a conflict that began in the separatist territory of South Ossetia. In that five-day fight, the Russian military not only ejected Georgian forces from the breakaway region, it also occupied areas of undisputed Georgian territory. Ultimately, Moscow “recognized” the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another Georgian separatist territory; the two entities are now de facto Russian protectorates.
It’s important to keep in mind that the situation today in Crimea is different from that which existed in the Caucasus in 2008. There are certainly some meaningful similarities: both represent centers of separatist agitation; Russian is the dominant spoken language; and Moscow has long pursued policies of “passportization” in both Ukraine and Georgia (and elsewhere) as a thinly disguised attempt to gain geopolitical leverage. But any comparison breaks down soon thereafter.
First, the basics: Ukraine is far larger than Georgia, and this simple fact precludes Russia from being able to throw its military weight around like it did during the Georgian war. Geography and demographics also come into play: the Crimean peninsula encompasses some 10,000 square miles, whereas landlocked South Ossetia’s area is less than one-sixth of that. The population is even more lopsided: Crimea’s population is around 2 million, while South Ossetia reportedly numbers only some 55,000. This puts the two regions in very different circumstances. After all, it’s one thing to prop up a statelet of 55,000, but quite another undertaking to do so for a region of Crimea’s size and population.
But more to the point, Crimea exists in a very different contextual universe than South Ossetia. Unlike in South Ossetia, where the population appears to approve almost uniformly of close ties to Russia, if not outright annexation, Crimea’s population is not so united in its views. The peninsula’s substantial and active Tatar minority has shown no interest in seeing their region break away from Ukraine. An effort by pro-Russian political forces in Crimea to get a secession movement off the ground, then, could expect to meet with stiff local resistance, as underscored by the clash outside the Crimean legislature on February 26.
Crimea would also seem to have much to lose from secession. While separatism may seem emotionally gratifying to some of its residents, the practical results seen elsewhere, especially in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have been economic isolation and a heightened dependence on Russia. Another factor to consider is that Russia exerted considerable influence in South Ossetia for 15 years prior to the 2008 war; the same is not the case in Crimea, outside of the Sevastopol naval base.
Looking at the big picture, Russia’s preferred geopolitical play isn’t to peel off Crimea; it is to re-integrate Ukraine as a whole into the Kremlin’s Eurasianist system. Fomenting Crimean separatism at this stage would be counter-productive for Russia because such action would surely galvanize anti-Russian forces in the rest of the country. If Russian leaders have learned anything from 2008, they should understand that impulsive action, specifically the quick recognition of Ossetian and Abkhaz independence, made it much tougher to realize their broader geopolitical aims in Georgia. Independence recognition has served only to deprive the Kremlin of much of its geopolitical leverage in its dealings with Tbilisi.
Although Russian intervention in Crimea very likely would prove a geopolitical blunder, the possibility cannot be excluded. Russia does not always, or even usually, act within the parameters of Western conceptions of national interest. But one thing is for sure: if Russia does intervene in Crimea, it will face a set of circumstances that will wildly differ and, in many respects, dwarf that of its 2008 intervention in Georgia.