The Crimean Crisis: is it REALLY worth it for Russia?

Posted on March 8, 2014


Russian Prime Minister Putin speaks during meeting with Czech Republic's Prime Minister Topolanek outside Moscow

Since last week’s start to the current crisis in Crimea I have struggled with one question in particular: “why?”. Did Putin wish to get involved in Crimea because of its strategic importance? Or did he wish to expose Western weaknesses and Russian strength? Or simply to gain domestic consensus?

There is no doubt over Crimea’s importance on a strategic level for Russia’s military which is why the Russian Black Sea Fleet already leased a base from the Ukraine in Sevastopol and has been stationing troops along the Crimean coast in agreement with Kiev since the break-up of the Soviet Union and the partition of the Black Sea Fleet. Unsurprisingly, the Western media has generally failed to mention the presence of Russian troops in the region prior to the crisis and portrayed the episode as ruthless annexation.

Kerry, the US secretary of state, emphatically declared:  “You just don’t, in the 21st century, behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.” While it may be out of place to put Kerry’s assertion to the test within the context of a certain invasion which was carried out back in 2003 it is still worth noting that Russia hasn’t used force yet and that it is unlikely to do so in the long term.

Indeed, Ukraine is clearly not up for a fight and other than calling up its reserves it is not in the position to take a more aggressive stance without the backing of the West, which has in turn been reluctant to respond to Russian involvement with more than contemptuous statements. Russia has become the third most important trade partner of the EU and its most important gas supplier; German companies alone have $22 billion invested in Russia.

While European countries fear the financial consequences that would ensue from isolating Russia with the use of economic sanctions, Russia has already been paying the price, and it is far from cheap: on Monday March 3rd, Russian companies lost almost $60 billion in value on the Moscow stock market. Furthermore, it is quite reasonable to hypothesise that even if Crimea were to join the Russian Federation, Russia will push the Ukraine towards the EU.

With Russian involvement in the Crimea Putin was presumably convinced that Russia had the higher ground because of the extent of economic interdependence between the EU and his country; but was it actually the case? After the EU suspended talks with Russia on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and on a visa agreement that would allow Russian citizens free movement within the EU it is Putin that is on the back foot. The Russian economy is stagnant and interdependence means that both sides have little interest in a trade war over Crimea, but Russia seems to be the one that has more to lose from such an eventuality.

Crimea, already legally an autonomous region within the Ukraine before Russian involvement, has its own parliament which has voted unanimously in favour of Russian annexation. Although there are no grounds in the Ukrainian constitution for such a vote to be considered legitimate, it is hard to see how Crimea, if the majority of its people really wish to be annexed by Russia, could fail to leave the Ukraine in a moment of great turmoil for the government in Kiev.

What if Putin has gone forward with involvement in Crimea to gain consensus at home as a liberator of Russians abroad? I still don’t think it was worth it. Russia, despite EU and US uncertainty, will hardly come out of this crisis stronger than it was before.

Posted in: America, Europe, News, Opinion