Whether he folded under pressure from the West, or whether he understood that the price of the Ukraine crisis was too high for the Russian economy, it could be that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to order his soldiers back to their bases.
If so, the reinforcement of Russian troops in Crimea is only another show of force meant to improve Putin’s position against the West.
In Putin’s hour-long telephone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama last week, many things were said that have yet to be reported. The bottom line is the White House’s brief announcement that there is a solution that will satisfy all parties.
The Russians were less optimistic. Their slightly longer announcement said there are still differences regarding the present situation and the reasons for the conflict. The Russians made clear they would continue to act as they saw fit.
The referendum on Crimea’s secession from Ukraine has been set for March 16, a long time in terms of this crisis, which only two weeks ago was described in terms of what would then-President Viktor Yanukovych do. It’s certainly possible that the referendum will be held, and there’s a good chance that if it is held, a majority will vote to join Russia.
Sixty percent of Crimea’s 2 million residents were described in the last census as ethnic Russians, though such definitions always blur a more complex range of identities. Twenty-five percent of residents are Ukrainian – according to the census – and 12 percent are Tatars, who are expected to lead the opposition to joining Russia.
Putin can continue on his current path. He won’t find it hard to ignore the sanctions the Americans have approved, not very happily, and which may tighten. The threats the Europeans so gladly make don’t worry him too much. And even if Obama and the Poles drag in the British, French and Germans to impose sanctions on Russia, the Kremlin can still do what it wants.
But before the referendum is held, or even afterwards, Putin can pull back his forces with honor if, for example, he demands a new autonomy agreement for Crimea. The agreement can include a batch of slogans and symbols that will satisfy Crimea’s nationalist leaders. Putin can also receive guarantees for the strategic issue that really interests him in Crimea: the military port.
The Greeks used the term autonomous republic during the Balkan wars that preceded World War I. There were two such Balkan wars in a nine-month period in 1912 and 1913. The Greek army captured a slice of the Ottoman Empire in what is today southern Albania.
In the agreement that ended the war, it was determined the region would be part of the newly formed Albania. The local Greeks refused to accept the decision and established the Autonomous Republic of Northern Epirus in February 1914. In May that year, the powers recognized this autonomous status. In October, after World War I had broken out, the Greek army recaptured the area. In the end, the Greeks lost control of the region in 1921.
The term autonomous republic returned for a few years when French colonialists used it in Africa in the 1950s, before their colonies gained independence.
Russia loves the definition. Out of Russia’s 83 federal units, 21 are autonomous republics. Georgia also uses the concept in two regions: Abkhazia and Adjara, the homeland of the Adjaran people, who speak a dialect of Georgian. Some of them are Sunni Muslims.
In the old Soviet Union there are two autonomous republics: Nakhchivan, an enclave under Azerbaijani control inside Armenia, and Karakalpakstan, which occupies the northwestern end of Uzbekistan and has a population 40 percent Uzbek, 20 percent Kazakh and 40 percent Karakalpak. The latter speak a Turkish dialect closer to that of the Kazakhs than the Uzbeks.
Putin can then look at his neighbors and draw inspiration for a new autonomy agreement for Crimea that he can dictate to the West in return for withdrawing his troops. He can also invent new ideas of his own.
One possibility is to demand that Russia become the guarantor of the Russian population’s security in Crimea. In the last century there were a number of agreements with such terms.
If such an idea were accepted, Putin would not lose face, nor his ability to threaten Kiev via his people in Crimea. Then he could continue to sabotage Ukraine’s efforts to draw closer to the West – just without using his troops and weapons.
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