Russia: Where next after Crimea?

Analysis: Neither Moscow nor the West has a strategy for their new cold war, but Putin is reversing post-Soviet setbacks

A Russian flag waves over during the workers installing a new sign on the local parliament building that reading "State council of the Crimean Republic", in Simferopol, Crimea, on March 19, 2014.
Bulent Doruk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In his speech to the Russian parliament on Tuesday, Vladimir Putin moved to include Crimea in the Russian Federation. At the same time, he said Moscow had no intention to move into southeastern Ukraine or to support a “Crimea scenario” there. The situation, however, is fast unfolding, and the crisis that led to the toppling on Feb. 21–22 of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich is far from over.

Over the past four weeks, Russia’s foreign policy and its relations with the United States and the European Union have been fundamentally transformed. Even if historical analogies are often tricky, Russia and the West have entered something that can be described as a new cold war.

Neither side has thus far developed a strategy for dealing with the other in this new scenario. The Russian approach, however, is basically clear. Putin, who in a 2006 address to the Russian parliament famously described the breakup of the Soviet Union as a major catastrophe, sees himself as repairing the damage done a quarter century ago by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin.

To Putin, eastern Slavs — Belarusians, Ukrainians and Russians — are part of an Orthodox Christian civilization closely tied by the bonds of ethnicity, language, culture and shared history. To the Russian leader, they are all one people.

During the Ukraine crisis, however, Putin has for the first time publicly described ethnic Russians as a divided nation — a description previously avoided so as not to alarm neighboring countries whose borders with Russia create those divisions. Putin used the idea of reuniting Russians to rationalize incorporating Crimea within the Russian Federation. He also noted that southeastern Ukraine, from Odessa to Kharkiv, was originally southern Russia and is still home to millions of ethnic Russians.

Moscow formally proposes federalizing Ukraine, making those regions autonomous from Kiev in terms of linguistic, cultural and economic policy and empowered to weigh in on Ukraine’s international alignment, particularly in respect to NATO membership or EU association — both of which Moscow opposes.  

Southern Ukraine physically touches on Transnistria, a sliver of territory along the Dniester River, which separated itself from Moldova even as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. Transnistrians, mostly ethnic Slavs — as compared with the Romanian-speaking Moldovans across the river — have long been supported by Moscow and feel allegiance to it. As Chisinau, Moldova’s capital, is proceeding with association with the EU and is considering dropping the neutrality clause from its constitution in order to apply for NATO membership, the authorities in Transnistria will likely follow Crimea’s example and seek to join Russia.

Like Crimea, Transnistria hosts a small Russian military contingent, but unlike Crimea it is landlocked and has no direct geographic connection with Russia. Transnistria’s links with Russia will crucially depend on what kind of regime exists in the neighboring Ukrainian region of Odessa.

Even without the Russia factor dominating the agenda, the crisis in Ukraine would continue. The challenge facing Ukrainians, both the elites and the ordinary people, is enormous: reforming the notoriously corrupt state, modernizing the vastly inefficient economy and building a nation out of diverse groups that do not share a historical narrative or even much of a culture. Moscow’s goal is to wean the southeast and the center region away from Kiev — the “mother of Russian cities,” as the ancient sobriquet goes — to join in the common economic, cultural, political and military space with Russia and Belarus.

The new authorities in Kiev, for their part, have just signed the political part of the Association Agreement with the EU. They also see the United States as their principal protector. The scene is set for Ukraine’s future to become a tug-of-war between Russia and the West.

Despite having essentially ruptured the post-Soviet status quo — which it now openly calls unjust — Moscow does not have designs on the Baltic states, which used to belong to the USSR, or on Poland, a former Soviet satellite. Yet, even as those new members of NATO are boosting the presence of Western military forces on their territories, expecting pressure from Russia over the status of local ethnic Russians — many of whom are not yet formally accepted as citizens of the countries where they reside — Russia, too, can be expected to beef up its military presence in the area, which might strengthen the hand of politicians in Finland and Sweden who have long advocated ending their countries’ tradition of neutrality and joining NATO.

The Atlantic Alliance, having survived a quarter century of peace in Europe, may make a de facto announcement next September that it is back in the business as an anti-Russian bloc.       

Meanwhile, Russia’s key relationship in Europe, that with Germany, is under severe strain and may soon unravel. Faced with a more or less hostile attitude from virtually all its European partners, and fast-shrinking economic ties, Moscow will have few foreign policy options other than to reach out to Asia. In his speech before the parliament, Putin lauded China and praised India.

In reality, China only abstained during the U.N. Security Council vote on Crimea, and India was merely muted in its criticism. In principle, China can lend Russia some money and absorb some gas exports, but on its own terms. Neither China nor India, however, can provide Russia with the kind of technology and investment from which the country has benefited through its economic relationships with the West.

Although the cold calculus of making Crimea part of Russia may not look worth the trouble to Moscow, it has to be understood that the logic of pragmatism long associated with Putin is not applicable here. The Russian president is on a mission to undo the wrongs to which Russians have been subjected, and to put things right for them.

He is challenging not only the 1991 geopolitical arrangements but an entire world order in which only the United States has the right to use force or to sanction its use by others, and to decide what is right and what is wrong. On this path, Russia will find formidable opponents and very few allies. As for friends, it will be able to rely on only two, its army and its navy. The outcome of this very unequal competition will define Russia’s future in the 21st century. 

Dmitri Trenin is the director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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