Thursday, March 13, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Under the Cover of Crimea

Paul Goble

            Staunton, March 13 – Like the KGB officer he once was and in many respects still remains, Vladimir Putin is using the Crimean crisis he created not only for the purposes he claims but also to advance under the cover of that crisis other goals that may be equally important to him but that won’t be affected by ongoing Western efforts to “solve” the crisis.

            In this, neither he nor Western governments are doing anything new. In 1999, for example, Putin re-launched Russia’s war in Chechnya, a move many in the West criticized, but at the same time, he began imposing ever more authoritarian policies in other spheres, policies that because of the war in the North Caucasus few in the West focused on.

Then in 2008, when Putin invaded Georgia, again an action many in the West condemned, the Russian president further “tightened the screws” at home – his language, no one else’s – but was able to escape the kind of criticism that he might have received had he done so in the absence of his self-manufactured Georgian crisis.

The same thing is happening once again: Putin is shifting Russia backwards to an even uglier and more authoritarian past, and the West is focused almost exclusively on Crimea and how it should react to that latest Putin crime rather than examining the broader agenda of the KGB officer in the Kremlin.

There are some exceptions, but they deserve to be better known.  Some involve asking the question: “Now that Putin has moved in Crimea, where will he move next?” Others focus on the return of such “survivals of the Soviet past” as lists of artists and writers declaring their support for Putin and discussions of “bourgeois nationalism” among Ukrainians (

And still a third group involves a closer examination of the ways in which Putin and his regime are using Crimea to go after the last remnants of independent journalism in the public sphere, including the decapitation of for publishing materials on Ukraine that the Kremlin didn’t like (

But most of these articles, as important as they are in documenting what is happening while the world is watching Crimea, fail to connect the dots and thus provide a picture of where Putin is headed and why those who are trying to address the “Crimean crisis” in isolation may be falling into yet another trap the Kremlin leader has prepared.

A useful exception to this pattern is provided by Liliya Shevtsova, a senior scholar at the Moscow Carnegie Center, in an interview she gave to VOA yesterday that has been reposted on Ekho Moskvy ( and

Acknowledging that neither she nor anyone else can see at present just how far Putin’s approach in Crimea is going to affect both the international system and Russia itself, Shevtsova says that at the very least, Putin is condemning Russia to isolation abroad as “a cowboy who acts without rules.”

That, she continues, creates “an exceptionally unfavorable situation or Russian development and in general for the realization of its interests both in the world and inside the country.”  It leads to a Hobbesian world of “all against all” in which no one can count on agreements or rules of the game. “Who and what can win in this situation?” she asks.

That can be seen, the Moscow scholar says, in the convoluted way the Kremlin has presented and defended the idea of a referendum in Crimea. First of all, Moscow has based its position on the idea that “Ukraine in the old format has ceased to exist.”  But there is no real basis for such a claim, and there are many problems with it, including for Russia.

“If Ukraine arose as a new state,” as Moscow seems to insist, “then it ceases to be a signatory of a whole line of agreements with Russia, including the treaty which secures the existence on the territory of Crimea of a Russian naval base.”  Obviously, Moscow doesn’t want that question open, but it reserves the right to declare all others to be exactly so.

The Kremlin also argues, Shevtsova says, that “the Ukrainian authorities are today illegitimate.”  But it does so in a way that is internally inconsistent: Ukraine is illegitimate Moscow insists because it did not live up to an agreement with Poland, Germany, and France that Russia did not sign. At the very least, Moscow’s backing of that accord now is “absurd.”

But the situation is even worse than that, she continues.  Moscow’s position now is in conflict with its position of only a few weeks ago.  Until recently, it had insisted on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Precisely in the name of the principle of territorial integrity, Russia carried out two wars in Chechnya.

Moscow’s approach in and to Crimea, Shevtsova says, violates international law, including agreements Moscow has signed and introduces into the 21st century the practice of Anchlusses from the 20th. Today, the Kremlin is acting according to the same logic Hitler used in demanding the cession of the Sudetenland because there were ethnic Germans there.

Not only does this violate the rules that had been established over the last two decades about security in Europe and Eurasia, but it throws Russia and the world back to “the communist and Soviet period of development” when Moscow arrogated to itself the right to act as it wanted without regard to international law or the rights and interests of its own citizens.

By taking such actions, Putin is “destroying all the foundations of the new order by threatening not only the basic principles of its relations with the world but by transforming itself into a revanchist and possibly outlaw state. Even Russia’s allies in the Eurasian and customs union – Belarus and Kazakhstan -- clearly do not support Putin’s initiative.”

Those in the West who are already talking about the need to “look beyond Crimea” are only deceiving themselves and in a way that Putin can only be pleased about, because they have fallen into the trap of failing to see that Crimea is about more than Crimea.  It is about the kind of world everyone – including the Russians --will be in if Putin gets away with aggression there.

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