A convergence of various developments has in recent years led to the rise of expansionistic tendencies within Russia. The centralization of political and economic power, high commodity prices (until recently), desire for rehabilitation and self-assertion, and fear of democracy in neighboring countries are some of the factors that have been feeding this trend. The keg finally boiled over earlier this year with Russia’s invasion of Georgia.
Besides being the inaugural salvo of Russia’s militant imperialism, the Georgian episode was also a test case. The question was how the world would respond. Needless to say, things could not have worked out better as far as the Kremlin is concerned. With the de facto annexation of South Ossetia – an enclave that will in time become part of the Russian Federation – Moscow has realized its political and territorial goals without any punitive consequences.
Although the attack initially drew a great deal of international condemnation and criticism, it quickly became obvious that the rhetoric was not backed by a will to act. The countries of Europe, on whose doorstep the invasion took place, are too weak militarily and too dependent on Russian energy to do anything substantive about it. Already overextended in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is at this time in no position to engage Russia in the distant Caucasus in order to protect a tiny ally.
Russia’s "punishment" would thus be rhetorical only. Less than four months after the invasion the outrage seems to be largely forgotten and Russia is back in the world’s good graces.
On November 14, countries of the European Union (EU) held a summit with Russia at which they discussed Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Surprisingly enough, EU officials did not see any real problems with the application. Describing the meeting as "constructive," they all but promised that Russia would be admitted.
EU representatives even went so far as to reassure Dmitri Medvedev that no country would oppose Russian entry, not even Georgia. They had obviously browbeaten the latter into compliance, since opposition by even one member constitutes a virtual veto. We do not exactly know what they did to make Georgia go along, but the effort must have involved some intense arm-twisting. Georgia had, of course, every reason to feel angry. Only a short time before it had been invaded by Russia, and at the time of the summit Russia was still in violation of the ceasefire agreement brokered by the EU. And yet, Georgia was forced into giving consent without being allowed to raise so much as a word of protest. This just shows how afraid and craven the Europeans really are.
Given the Russians’ expansionist ambitions combined with the realization that they can pursue those ambitions with virtual impunity, the question arises who will be the next victim of Moscow’s militant imperialism.
There is much to suggest that Crimea is next on the list. Part of Ukraine, Crimea is one of Europe’s most strategically important regions. A peninsula roughly the size of Maryland, Crimea juts out from the Ukrainian mainland into the middle of the Black Sea. At the peninsula’s southern tip is the famed port of Sevastopol, standing sentry-like over that much traversed body of water. One of the most important naval points in Europe, the port is currently home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
Because of its location, the country that controls Crimea controls much of the Black Sea. Crimea’s importance was once again highlighted during the recent Russo-Georgian war when Russia used Sevastopol as the base for its naval operations. It was from that port that Russia dispatched several warships to support the troops on the ground. Equally important for Russia is the fact that Crimea lies in the underbelly of Ukraine, a "troublesome" country with whom the Kremlin is involved in a number of bitter disputes.
Due to its strategic importance, Crimea was fought over many times in the past. During its long and turbulent history, it was successively controlled by many powers including the Greeks, Persians, Mongols, Venetians, and the Russian Empire. In October 1921, Crimea was incorporated into the Soviet Union as part of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic even though it was not territorially contiguous with it. In 1954, however, Crimea was transferred to Ukraine. The Supreme Soviet decree that effected the transfer gave a three-prong rationale for the move: "close (1) geographic, (2) economic, and (3) cultural ties to the Ukrainian SSR." In reality, the transfer did not make a great deal of practical difference, as both Russia and Ukraine were at the time part of the same sovereign entity – the Soviet Union.
Following the disintegration of the USSR, however, a bitter dispute erupted between Russia and Ukraine over the status of Crimea. In the end, the peninsula stayed with Ukraine and properly so, since territorially it is one with the Ukrainian mainland. But Russia would not let go without getting anything in return. Wanting to preserve its muscle in the Black Sea, the Russians insisted that they retain the use of Sevastopol’s naval facilities, the home of its Black Sea fleet. In 1997, a compromise was reached whereby Ukraine agreed to let Russia use portions of the naval port on 20-year renewable lease.
Recently, however, Ukraine made it clear that it will not exercise the renewal option when the current lease expires in 2017. Ukraine’s decision deeply dismayed the Kremlin which was hoping that the temporary arrangement could eventually be transformed into a quasi-perpetual state of affairs. Needless to say, Russian leaders are in no mood to give up such a strategically important point. There is much evidence that they have been contemplating an altogether different arrangement, one in which they would not have to rely on the consent of the government in Kiev to maintain their presence in Sevastopol. It now appears that their plan is to make Crimea once again part of the Russian Federation.
Although the idea of such a radical move may initially seem too outrageous even for the Russians, in reality a strong case can be made for Crimea’s annexation. In fact, Moscow can use the identical argument it used to justify its annexation of South Ossetia except that in the Crimean scenario the claim will be even stronger.
Moscow has defended the South Ossetian land grab by claiming to defend the rights of Russian citizens residing in that enclave. Alleging discrimination and oppression, it "concluded" there was no other option than to invade in order to extend protection. The formal justification for such belligerency has been laid down in what is sometimes referred to as the Putin Doctrine. It states that it is Russia’s determination to protect the rights and "the dignity" of Russian citizens living in "the near abroad," a code-phrase for former Soviet territory. David Aikman, a former senior correspondent for Time, aptly points out, that the Putin Doctrine "provides Russia with a pretext for intervention wide enough to drive a tank through." This is precisely what the Russians did in South Ossetia and what they by every indication plan on doing in Crimea. The only difference is that in Crimea it won’t be tanks but ships.
They will have a good excuse, since 54 percent of Crimea’s two million inhabitants are ethnic Russians. Even though Russians are not native to the peninsula, many of those currently living there have fairly deep roots. Most of them can trace their Crimean past back to the 1940s and 50s when the peninsula was heavily Russified by Joseph Stalin following his decimation and deportation of the original population. In any case, the Kremlin is leaving nothing to chance and has been handing out Russian passports in large numbers. Stratfor, an international intelligence and analysis company, estimates that as many as 100,000 passports may have been issued in the last four months alone. Even though Crimeans are Ukrainian citizens and under Ukrainian law double citizenship is illegal, the matter is difficult to monitor and enforce. Skilled in the art of international subversion, the Russians are deftly taking advantage of the opportunity.
To further strengthen the allegiance of the Crimean Russians, the Kremlin has been sending in generous amounts of cash. Even though it is illegal under Ukrainian law for foreign governments to financially support minorities, Mr. Putin and his friends have always been good at overcoming legal hurdles. Earlier this year they dispatched Yuri M. Luzhkov, the mayor of the city of Moscow, to do their bidding. A vice-chairman and one of the founders of the ruling United Russia party, Luzhkov does not hold federal office and thus cannot be technically accused of representing the Kremlin government. As such, he be conveniently used in a semi-private role to carry out its agenda in situations where direct involvement would be seen as inappropriate or illegal. New York Times writer Clifford J. Levy described Luzhkov as "a former Soviet apparatchik who yearns to restore Russia’s regional hegemony, he has supported ethnic Russians and stoked separatism in nations along the country’s borders." According to Moscow city officials quoted by the Times, Luzhkov "has spent hundreds of millions of dollars from Moscow’s well-padded city budget in Russia’s near abroad."
On his trip to Crimea earlier this year, Luzkov brought along $34 million for "the support of compatriots abroad." As could be expected, he received a hero’s welcome. He then gave a speech where he told a cheering throng that Sevastopol "should again be a Russian city."
This behavior is eerily reminiscent of Russian actions in another region. There too the Kremlin was handing out passports freely. And amidst that passport extravaganza came in Yuri M. Luzhkov with a substantial financial gift to "support the compatriots abroad." As in Crimea he was given a hero’s welcome. A few months later, Russian tanks rolled in to "extend protection" to those compatriots.
That region was, of course, South Ossetia.