Crimea’s gone, but it’s not World War III

As expected, Sunday’s referendum in Crimea recorded, whether by fair means or foul, a huge majority in favor of joining Russia. Russian president Vladimir Putin welcomed the result, and on Tuesday signed a treaty with the Crimean government to formalise the move; it is expected to be ratified by the Russian parliament without difficulty.

Many have now turned their attention to eastern Ukraine, arguing that Putin’s success in Crimea will prompt him to go further and attempt to occupy or annex other Russian-speaking regions. Julia Ioffe in New Republic, for example, says bluntly: “make no mistake, Putin is about to take eastern Ukraine, too.”

Some are talking about even more ambitious targets. Hugh White, in Tuesday’s Fairfax papers, has some sensible things to say about the European response to the crisis, but also ups the ante on military alarmism by saying “Most Europeans would probably agree they must be willing to fight for Poland”, and then querying whether they would do the same for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The reality, however, is that even a relatively small strip of eastern Ukraine would be a much bigger ask for Putin than Crimea has been, and going beyond that is just not within the bounds of the possible.

Donnacha O Beachain in yesterday’s Crikey is less alarmist than White, but still draws parallels with Hitler in the 1930s and refers to “Putin’s experience in previous wars in Chechnya and Georgia.” But Chechnya was internationally recognised as an integral part of Russia, and the war with Georgia was to defend, from Georgian attack, a region that had enjoyed de facto independence for 16 years.

It’s almost three weeks since I pointed out that secession of Crimea and full-scale partition of Ukraine were very different things, but it’s worth stressing the point: Crimea is a historically Russian region in a way that nowhere else in Ukraine is. Moreover, it already had a substantial Russian military presence due to the Sevastopol naval base, plus a regional government with some existing powers of autonomy.

No doubt Sunday’s referendum was not a fair test, but there’s nothing unlikely in the idea that a substantial majority in Crimea would be willing to secede. Slicing it off by force is still a violation of international law, but on the scale of things it’s not at the most serious end. An incursion into Ukraine proper would be a very different matter.

I understand that war – that is, good old-fashioned war, with great powers involved and tank columns rolling across the steppe – is an exciting subject for pundits to speculate about. I’m not above doing it occasionally myself. But Putin’s rhetoric so far, including an explicit statement that “We do not want a partition of Ukraine”, is completely consistent with the view that Crimea is a special case, and that while he would like to intimidate the Ukrainian government, he has not the slightest intention of following that up with an actual invasion.

White goes on to say that “no Ukrainian leader will be able to sustain for long any policy that displeases Moscow. It will be drawn closer to Moscow and further from the rest of Europe …”. But it seems to me that the reverse is true. Ukraine will be less and less likely to trust Russia in the future, and will draw closer to the west as a matter of self-defence. If it’s true (and I’m not convinced it is) that NATO and the EU would not now fight for Kiev, that’s all the more reason for Ukraine to get close enough to them that in the future they would.

And it’s always worth remembering that from the point of view of the future of Europe, the big prize is not Ukraine but Russia itself. Putin and Putinism will not be around forever. White says that the current crisis “marks the end of the post-Cold-War vision of a united European community stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals,” but the fact that progress towards that vision has been interrupted is no reason to give up on it as an ideal.

Fifteen years ago, when the Kosovo war was under way, similar things were said about the intractability of Serbia and Slobodan Milošević as are now being said about Russia and Putin. But a few years later Milošević was on trial at The Hague and Serbia was finding its feet as a democracy. It’s now at the front of the queue for EU membership, with Milošević’s former information minister as prime minister-elect.

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