I’m in Crikey today with another piece on Ukraine, and specifically the importance of Crimea. My main point is that when we talk about the possibility of Ukraine splitting or being partitioned, there’s an equivocation going on: a split down the middle would be a very different prospect from the simple secession of Crimea, the most pro-Russian region:
A partition in Ukraine along the line of the 2010 election result would be nightmarish; it would split the country in half, cutting the capital off from most of the Ukraine’s industrial base. It would dismember what is, despite its chequered history, a distinct cultural territory.
But the secession of Crimea on its own would have no such implication. The new authorities in Kiev will be less worried about Crimea for its own sake and much more for what it might say about the fragility of the country in general, and the meddlesome intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
I therefore take up the suggestion that I made a couple of days ago:
Although I doubt that it will, perhaps the most effective conciliatory gesture the new government could make would be a sign to Russia that once things have calmed down it would be willing to contemplate a referendum on Crimea’s future, and to negotiate its return to Russia if local opinion supports that option.
In what I wrote for Crikey I introduced this idea with the words “The best way forward in Ukraine, it seems to me …”, but a sub-editor evidently thought this was too personal, so it came out as “it seems to many”. I feel I have become legion.
Since that story was written, the crisis in Crimea has deepened, with armed men in Russian uniforms present at the airports of the region’s two major cities, Sevastopol and Simferopol. (Note that Sevastopol is administratively separate from Crimea, but geographically and culturally is an integral part of it.)
According to the BBC, Ukraine’s interior minister has claimed that “The men in Sevastopol airport are Russian military.” Those at Simferopol claim to be “simple people, volunteers,” calling themselves the “People’s Militia of Crimea.” The airport is reported to be operating normally.
The other major development is that the Crimean parliament (whose building is apparently still occupied by pro-Russian gunmen) has announced that it will hold a referendum on “expanding the region’s autonomy” on 25 May. Don’t put it in your diary just yet, since a lot can happen in three months, but that doesn’t sound like the move of people who are bent on joining Russia at all costs.
I’m still not sure that Vladimir Putin will be willing to go to the full extent of backing a secessionist regime in Crimea – I think it’s just as likely that his plan is to demonstrate his capacity to make trouble in order to induce a more friendly attitude in the new Ukrainian government. Certainly if increased autonomy is the most the Crimeans want, Kiev shouldn’t be reluctant about giving it to them.
But it would make life easier for both sides if they could find a way of peacefully transferring Crimea to Russia without having the rest of the country fall to pieces.