Taking back a gift is frowned upon across the globe, except in Russia. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handed Crimea as a gift to Ukraine in 1954, but 60 years later Russian president Vladimir Putin made a swift reclaim.
After spending the last few years making efforts for recognition as a prominent member of the globalized world, Russia has managed to isolate itself in a matter of days. Fittingly, the Crimean Peninsula also represented Russia’s estrangement from Europe in the 19th century. After building up favorable relations with European allies by cooperating against Napoleon, Russia abruptly alienated itself by launching an unexpected attack on the Ottoman Empire in 1853.
Assuming the role as protector of the Empire’s oppressed Orthodox Christians, Russia attempted to take control of the Black Sea during the three year Crimean War. Its efforts were thwarted after Britain and France intervened, forcing Russia to abandon its plans and accept a peace deal.
Russia no longer uses religion as a mantra for expanding its influence and instead styles itself as a guardian of ethnic Russians, regardless of their location. That was the excuse used in separating two regions from Georgia in 2008; a conflict mirroring this week’s annexation of Crimea.
While Putin targeted Crimea following Ukraine’s ambitions for European Union integration and ousting of its pro-Russian president, desires of joining NATO were the catalyst of his aggression towards Georgia. Putin still views Russia as the empire victimized by the Mongols, Vikings, Napoleon and Hitler, and reacts with alarm whenever one of its former subjects expresses a desire seek relationships with outside powers.
Like Crimea, the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are primarily populated by ethnic Russians. Similarly, Russia managed to maintain a military presence in the regions following the fall of the Soviet Union. This enabled Putin to easily occupy Crimea and in 2008 helped stir up tensions in Georgia’s troubled territories.
After Georgia took a step closer to NATO membership in April 2008, Putin responded by authorizing official ties with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two regions had long endured uneasy relations with Georgia, but the moves from Putin amplified tensions that led to local skirmishes. This provided him with the perfect excuse to send in ‘peacekeeping’ troops to protect the ethnic Russians, emboldening the regions’ separatist movements. When Georgian troops responded to attacks from South Ossetian rebels, Putin sent his army into Georgia-proper, laying waste to any resistance over a five-day conflict that resulted in 850 deaths.
Ultimately, Russia never assumed South Ossetia and Abkhazia into its federation, but did officially recognize their independence from Georgia. The tumult was intended to send a clear message to neighbors that aspired to western relations. Yet the EU and US acted as if unaware that Russia might take action against Ukraine if it sought European integration. When Putin coerced Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich to reject the EU’s proposed trade deal late last year, the West stayed silent; neither voicing strong support for Yanukovich against the larger bully nor warning Russia of interference. Of course, Western leaders hoped things would be resolved quickly so that it could maintain the stability of its Russian business interests.
But when Yanukovich was chased out of power, Putin realized he had to take things another step further. The seizing of Crimea was designed to remind the new Ukrainian government that looking west brings headwinds from the east.
Today, Putin seems to be following the template from the Georgian conflict. Things have been calm since ceasefire was reached there in 2008 and Georgia remains outside NATO. As long as Ukraine does the same then Russia will not encroach beyond Crimea.
Putin is likely wary that further provocation in Ukraine could incur additional sanctions from the West, akin to the severe measures on Iran that restricted access to the global financial system and choked its economy. But Western powers will be reluctant given that Russia plays a more important role in global trade than Iran ever did. Moreover, even if sanctions are intensified, Putin’s desire for regional authority cannot be underestimated. Since the days of Peter the Great, Russian rulers have put a high value on the power of the nation, often above the health of its citizens.
Crimea will never be returned to Ukraine, but further Russian expansion is unlikely. As with Georgia, Putin is probably content that his work in Ukraine is done, for now. He has conveyed a stern warning to the new leadership while invigorating the nation’s large pro-Russian population. Calm will be solidified if May’s Ukrainian elections restore power to eastern-leaning politicians; something that will bring relief to Putin, and the West.