Crimea: A Case of Déjà Vu

By Vasile Rotaru

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin has never hesitated to use its hard power in the near abroad whenever it has considered its strategic interests to be at stake. 

It did so after the NATO Bucharest summit, by invading Georgia and freezing Ukraine during the coldest days of the 2009 winter for disregarding Moscow’s concern about the extension of the NATO in its sphere of privileged interests. Moscow played the long-standing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan by convincing Yerevan to distance itself from Europe two months before the summit where Armenia was hoping to initiate an Association Agreement with the EU. And we are now witnessing Russian attempts in Crimea to punish or at least to coerce Ukraine for its rapprochement with the EU.

The latest developments of Russian policy in the "common neighbourhood" are linked to the evolution of the six former Soviet republics (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) within the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative, more exactly to the prospects of signing Association Agreements with the EU. The conclusion of such agreements with the EU would lead the Eastern Partners to the point of no return on their European path, the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) being incompatible with participation in customs agreements with third parties, thus with the Eurasian Economic Union (a proposed economic union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia) too. It is true that at the stage of initiation of the Association Agreements with the EU the Partners are engaged in substantial regulatory alignment with the EU but they still have the possibility to change camp. In reality, however, none of them have done this voluntarily so far. This can explain why Russia has been so determined to prevent the initiation and signing of such agreements in the common neighbourhood. However, in the case of Armenia, Moscow’s suggestion that it intended to support Azerbaijan militarily solved the problem; in the case of Ukraine things have gone differently.

Even if at the beginning it seemed that the Kremlin managed to avoid the danger of Kiev signing the Association Agreements with the EU, the mobilisation of Ukrainian citizens gave another twist to the events.

Without a loyal president in Kiev, with a compromised image among the Ukrainian brothers and with a strong civil society pressing the political leaders in Kiev to make fast and decisive steps towards rapprochement with the EU, Moscow saw itself in danger of losing Ukraine. The Kremlin’s actions were not left to wait: Crimea became the battlefield for preserving influence and leverage towards Ukraine.

However, instead of adapting its policy to the new realities in the "near abroad", Russian actions in Crimea, are in fact following a "successful" scenario used at the beginning of the 1990s in the Eastern region of the Republic of Moldova. At that time, similar to what is happening now in Crimea, Russian soldiers supported and acted on behalf of Transnistrian separatists, by helping and gradually taking control of the region. The next step was the proclamation of Transnistria as a Soviet republic by an ad hoc assembly (at that time Moldova was still part of the Soviet Union). The tension evolved into a civil war that resulted in Chisinau’s loss of control over that territory. Transnistria later held a referendum for joining Russia, in 2006. However, despite 98 per cent of voters having been in favour, Moscow has not annexed the territory. It would not have needed to do so as long as de facto, Transnistria is under Russian control.

According to this pattern, Crimea is currently in the first stage of a Transnistrian scenario: (pro)Russian self-defence forces are getting control over the region. The local Parliament adopted already an independence declaration from Ukraine. On 16 March 2014, the pro-Russian political leaders of Crimea organised a referendum on the status of the Ukrainian peninsula. The citizens had to choose between two options: to join Russia as a federal subject of the Russian Federation or to remain part of Ukraine but with the restoration of the 1992 Constitution of Crimea, that granted more autonomy. As expected, the outcome was a majority vote for union with Russia (over 90 per cent). Such a result would increase tension in Crimea. Let us hope bloodshed will be avoided. The most likely outcome is that Russia will not annex the region, however it will support the secessionists and will control Crimea de facto.

The situation in Crimea suits Russia very well. Moscow does not need to annex the Ukrainian peninsula to achieve its goals. For the Kremlin it is more effective and much cheaper to control the region, to set itself as defending the rights of minorities to self-determination as it did in Georgia, and to use the card of recognition of Crimean independence whenever Kiev disregards its strategic interests. For Russia an unresolved territorial conflict in Ukraine appears to be the best solution to prevent Ukraine from joining any unfriendly organisation. Moscow might assume that neither NATO nor the EU are willing to accept new members with internal problems that could spread instability. However, Brussels has already assured Moldova that its process of rapprochement with the EU will not be affected by the Transnistrian issue, and both the EU and the US are ready to provide substantial financial help to Ukraine in order to solve its economic problems.  Meanwhile if Russia relies on the fact that pressing for secessionism would convince Ukraine to look for closer relations with Moscow at the expense of rapprochement with the West, the Kremlin pressure might have the opposite effect. The Ukrainian population has already shown how committed it is to European aspirations.  Even if the country has a secessionist region it will not be left to Russia to decide its future.


Vasile Rotaru is a Romanian PhD in Political Science (International Relations). His research intersts are the Eastern Partnership, EU-Russia relations, EU and Russian foreign policy, the CIS. 


16 March 2014