Yesterday’s voting in Crimea resulted in a 95.5% approval of withdrawing from Ukraine and joining Russia. Turnout was around 85% officially. The Crimean assembly immediately passed legislation to implement this decision of the people who turned up to vote. It officially declared independence and applied for membership in the Russian Federation. The ball is now in Vladimir Putin’s court. The question is how he makes the next move.
One option, and most assuredly not the move he will make, is simply to annex Crimea and declare the entire affair over and done with. Mr. Putin is trying to salvage something out of losing the entirety of Ukraine, which he believes is not really even a country separate from Russia. With the pro-EU factions prevailing in the recent street protests, he is desperate to claw back as much as he can from Kyiv. And so, this won’t be over until he says it’s over. And there is much more maneuvering he can do.
A more likely option is that he will do nothing for a time. The West is trying to figure out whom to sanction and how severely. President Putin will want to see just how tough the response is before doing anything new. It is likely that the sanctions will be insufficient to prevent him from demanding more, but Comrade Putin does have time on his side now and is likely to take advantage of that.
Yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to promote a solution to the whole mess by reforming the constitution of Ukraine. According to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement that reform will come “in a generally acceptable form and while taking into the account the interests of all regions of Ukraine.”
Reading between the lines, this means that Crimea may wind up an independent state or possibly a condominium under Kyiv and Moscow. Russia may opt not to exercise the annexation option in exchange for much more influence throughout the eastern part of Ukraine. This can all be negotiated with maximum Russian leverage until the annexation of Crimea happens formally. At that point, Russian leverage drops.
Ukraine, of course, has some options of its own. It can shut down the gas pipelines that feed Russian natural gas to European customers farther west. Such a move would hurt Russia, and it would hurt the Europeans who buy Russian gas, the very nations who could impose strict sanctions on Russia. Kyiv can use this threat to get Berlin and Paris to act in its interests. It also has military bases in Crimea, which are excellent bargaining counters.
And there is the little matter of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed by the US, Russia, the UK and Ukraine, under which Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the USSR. In exchange, it got assurances about its national security from Moscow. Pavlo Rizanenko, a member of the Kyiv parliament who sits with Vitali Klitschko’s Udar Party, has said that Ukraine may want to go nuclear since Moscow, in his eyes, has violated the Budapest deal.
If Iran getting The Bomb worries Russia, the Americans the British and the French, imagine what nukes in Europe that none of them controls would do.
There is a lot of discussion ahead, and Russia’s best move is merely to threaten annexation of Crimea. One expects the region to go to Russia in a final settlement but not before.