It is interesting in the present Western-Russian stand-off in Ukraine to watch the two sides competing to paint the other as the worst serial violator of international law. Putin’s Russia led the charge against Western intervention in Syria’s civil war, citing a nation’s right to remain free from external meddling in its affairs; an intriguing opinion given Russian military manoeuvres in the last month. The Kremlin seems to have difficulty with the notion that countries within the FSU (Former Soviet Union) have a right to an independent foreign policy. On the other hand, as Russia can point out, it was the Western-led war with Serbia and the subsequent US-engineered overthrow of its leader Slobodan Milošević that saw the first re-drawing of European borders by outside force since 1945. It did not help Western-Russian relations that Milošević’s fall was followed by several ‘Colour Revolutions’ in the post-Soviet world, whose new leaders were warmly welcomed by Western leaders. Indeed, the pet foreign policy project of Vladimir Putin virtual since has been the reversal of Russian decline in its ‘near-abroad’ and the return in alignment to Moscow of as many FSU states as possible. The recent actions of Russia are therefore larger than just the Crimea, or even Ukraine.
The fall of Milošević and the subsequent partition of Serbia might be deemed the ‘original sin’ of 21st century Western-Russian relations. A part of a sovereign pro-Russian state was occupied by foreign powers and under their protection was allowed to vote to secede without the permission of the central government. It is not hard to see how this suits the Russian playbook now the tables are turned. The Crimea can be plausibly seen as Ukraine’s ‘Kosovo’ in this scenario- an autonomous province where a local ethnic majority could potentially secede or fuse with a neighbouring state sharing their language, religion and culture. It is especially vulnerable to annexation because of the dubious legal nature of its 1954 transfer to Ukraine from Russia. An emotional case can be plausibly be manufactured around its history as the centre of the beginning of Russian Christianity, the local population’s ethnic make-up and supposed sympathies etc. This was tacitly recognised after independence by giving the peninsula a special status within Ukraine because post-Soviet boundaries remain vulnerable in a part of the world where sovereignty is not pooled and borders remain barriers.
Viktor Yanukovych, like Milošević, presided over a corrupt and weakly authoritarian post-communist system, in a state whose borders were drawn as an administrative unit rather than a modern nation-state. Peoples who had been content to live within the boundaries of an administrative unit that did not share their political identity proved less so when that unit was termed sovereign and altered in political purpose. Large-scale bloodshed has so far been avoided in Ukraine because since independence the Ukrainian elites have acted with more restraint than former Yugoslavian ones. Russia by contrast has made three armed interventions within the FSU over contested territory (Chechnya, Georgia & Ukraine) since Putin became President. All the interventions exploited anomalies from when the USSR dissolved into its constituent republics. Only the ‘limited’ nature of the Russian response to losing Ukraine as a candidate for Putin’s proposed Eurasian Union gives one hope that Russia’s push into Ukraine is tactical and will remain cautious.
Compared to the Soviet Union’s full-scale invasions of foreign nations whenever their Communist governments started to wobble or dissent (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan), Russia’s behaviour does reveal the reductions in her post-Soviet capacities. Furthermore use force against neighbouring republics carries costs for a still-fragile Russian economy upon which much of the stability of Putin’s regime rests. His system of government may be undemocratic, but Putin is no all-powerful dictatorial figure like Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-un. What will happen to the Crimean peninsula is uncertain. However the ideal goal for Russia would be to re-establish its influence inside Ukraine’s central government. The Crimea’s direct annexation to Russia will allow the Kremlin to protect a strategic naval base, but only at the cost of losing all control at a higher level. The fate of the peninsula is tied to Russian success at jockeying with the West for influence in Kiev.