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How to defeat Russia

After the annexation of Crimea, what can Ukraine and the West do to contain Russia?

Last updated: 23 Mar 2014 10:18
Oxana Shevel

Oxana Shevel is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University and an Associate at the Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.
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The West should widen the sanctions against Russia to make its annexation of Crimea costly, writes Shevel [Reuters]

Russia's recent annexation of Crimea threw the West into confusion, scrambling to respond, while Ukraine is still dealing with the aftershock or losing territory. Questions about the legitimacy of the referendum still remain.

The official results which showed 83 percent turnout and 96.7 percent in favour of splitting from Ukraine were unrealistically high. Polls conducted in recent years show that while Crimea always had the highest share of the population in favour of joining Russia, this share has not been higher than 50 percent and has gone down over the years.

For example, a February 2014 poll found that 41 percent of Crimean residents were in favour of joining Russia, while the same percentage wanted the region to remain within Ukraine but have greater autonomy. Even if support for joining Russia peaked in recent weeks, the official figures are hardly credible, not least because Crimea Tatars who account for 12-15 percent of the population and strongly oppose Russia's rule, boycotted the referendum.

The unrealistic results and the illegal nature of the referendum under the Ukrainian law did not deter Russia from recognising it. On March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty of accession with the region's new leaders to make Crimea and the city of Sevastopol the 84th and 85th regions of the Russian Federation. The harsh reality is that it may not be possible to reverse Putin's annexation of Crimea in the near future. Still, the West and Ukraine can emerge as winners down the road. For this to happen, the following measures are needed.

Condemnation and sanctions

First, even though international condemnation of Russia's actions failed to deter its land grab, it should continue, as it damages Russia's international position and its righteous self-image. Other countries' refusal to recognise the annexation also allows Ukraine to pursue legal challenges in international courts and seek compensation for property and resources it will lose. It also keeps open the possibility that Ukraine's territorial integrity might one day be restored.

International condemnation of Crimea's annexation underscores the weakness of Russia's arguments. One of the Kremlin's main arguments is the supposed parallel with Kosovo. What Moscow forgets is that Kosovo's independence followed years of rights violations against the Kosovar Albanians and was accomplished through an extended negotiated process. It did not result in another country annexing the province. The Russian government has also skirted the fact that it pledged to guarantee Ukraine's territorial integrity when it signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum following its denuclearisation.

Second, economic sanctions are also valuable as they can make this land grab very costly for Russia. Down the road this could make the folly of the annexation evident to people both in Russia and in Crimea. For sanctions to be effective, the West should expand the list of targeted individuals which at the moment consists of mainly second tier officials.

It excludes not only Putin, but also key business and security figures in his inner circle. Western states should also consider measures such as excluding Russia from the SWIFT international banking system and revoking Russia's right to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. They should also prevent Western companies from participating in the exploitation of Black Sea oil and gas deposits bordering Crimea, if Russia decides to develop them without compensating Ukraine.

Measures to reduce Western dependency on Russian hydrocarbons, the main source of global leverage and revenue for Russia, should also be taken. The Russian economy has already been slowing down and has long been plagued by problems such as hostile business climate, corruption, and bloated bureaucracies. Economically propping Crimea will be a substantial burden for Russia.

Close to half of Crimea's budget has been filled by transfers from Kiev, and the peninsula, which has no land connection with Russia, is dependent on mainland Ukraine for virtually all of its water, electricity and gas which Ukraine could now decide to sell at much higher prices. Experts estimate that Russia will have to spend $4-5bn a year on the peninsula. Coupled with declining hard currency reserves, increased inflation, and capital flight, the impact of banking and trade restrictions from economic sanctions can be substantial. 

Rights violations and aggression

Third, Russia should be watched closely - and held accountable - if it violates the rights of individuals and ethnic groups in Crimea that remain loyal to Ukraine. There are disturbing reports about dozens of journalists, activists and Ukrainian military officers harassed, detained, and kidnapped in Crimea by Russian forces and local pro-Russian "self-defence" groups.  Ukrainian military units are attacked, and there are two confirmed deaths resulting from the Russian occupation: A Crimean Tatar activist whose  body was found bearing signs of torture and a Ukrainian serviceman who was shot dead on March 18.

Inside Story - Reclaiming Crimea: Is it legal?

The violence has the potential to get worse, as under the treaty Russia signed with Crimea, Crimean residents who wish to remain Ukrainian citizens rather than become Russian citizens need to declare themselves to the yet undetermined authority within one month. Those who choose to remain loyal to Ukraine thus may become de facto blacklisted, and their rights, including property rights, may be endangered.

Fourth, every effort should be made, by both Ukraine and the West, to deter Putin's aggression in eastern and southern Ukraine. Putin's statement that he has no plans to this effect should not be taken at face value. Russia's imperial self-image that has figured so prominently in Putin's speech on the annexation of Crimea includes these regions of Ukraine as well. The Russian president is likely well aware that the method used in Crimea will not work smoothly elsewhere in Ukraine because there are no Russian troops already there to aid local separatists, and the pro-Russian sentiment, while present, is substantially weaker than in Crimea. 

Still, Putin might just delay such action for now. Russia has been moving its troops to the land border with Ukraine, and according to numerous media reports and Ukrainian security services, arrivals from Russia and Russia-sponsored local groups and activists have actively participated in pro-Russian demonstrations, including takeovers of government buildings in several Ukrainian cities such as Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv and Odesa in recent weeks.

If Russia can foment enough unrest in south-eastern Ukraine, it could then intervene on the pretext of protecting Russian-speaking citizens. So far this scenario has not worked out, as Ukrainian security services arrested dozens of separatist activists, including a Russian intelligence officer.

The Ukrainian authorities should continue to do all they can to prevent Crimean scenario in south-eastern regions. This should involve not only arresting Russian agents and separatist leaders, but also addressing legitimate concerns of citizens of these regions about issues such as education and language polices, and the degree of local self-rule.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk this week addressed residents of south-eastern regions promising "major reforms" of centre-region relations and devolution to regions substantial rights in budgetary, local governance and cultural spheres. These measures should be negotiated in the near future, and formalised in Ukrainian legislation, including in the new constitution that is expected to be adopted this year. 

The West for its part should help Ukraine by sending monitors from trusted and experienced international institutions such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe, to maintain ongoing dialogue, and if necessary mediate negotiations between local and capital elites in Ukraine. Western states should also help Ukraine to build up its armed forces so that Ukrainian army is better capable to react to Russian military intervention if it does come.

Building a new Ukraine

Finally, the dangers of Putin's aggressive policies pose for Ukraine and Europe broadly can be countered by making the alternative model more appealing for countries in Russia's immediate neighbourhood. As Putin made it clear in his 47-minute speech on the occasion of Crimea's annexation, his vision of Russia's success and source of pride for its citizens comes from it reclaiming its former imperial glory, including lost territories central to its imperial psyche.

The Western powers can do much to promote the attractiveness of an alternative model: A polity where people's self-worth and pride as citizens is derived not from geopolitical standing, landmass, or self-proclaimed spiritual superiority, but from a democratic system where individual rights and liberties are respected and where officials serve the public and not their pockets. 

The West can help Ukraine become such a state. Important initiatives to this effect have already been announced, such as the $15bn offered by the European Union, plans to scrap tariffs for Ukrainian goods on the EU market, and the aid package recently approved by the US Congress. It also just signed an agreement with the EU for further integration. 

If Ukraine succeeds in becoming a prosperous democratic state while Russia's land grab in Crimea remains unrecognised internationally and drains Russia's economy, we may well see in the distant future the peninsula returning to Ukraine and a new democratic leadership in Russia letting it go.

Oxana Shevel is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Tufts University and an Associate at the Davis Centre for Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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