The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Reacting to Ukraine/Crimea

March 1, 2014

Yesterday, I suggested that there is little the US/NATO could do about the Russian intervention in Ukraine.  That still is very much true.  Obama’s statement referred to costs–that this would cost Russia and it will (trade, the G8 summit, etc).   But that is not a redline or a serious effort at deterrence–just a statement of reality.  Russia’s relations with the US, EU, NATO and others will be “taxed” by this event–Russia will get less in the near future because of what it does here.

The questions this morning (other than “is that a tank or not“) revolve around what can we call this event, what is the best analogy, and otherwise can we make sense of it.

At first blush, this looks like irredentism to me.  That is, Russia is acting to take back a hunk of territory it “lost”, a hunk inhabited by ethnic kin.  Why?  Because I want to inflate sales of my book with Bill Ayres?  No.  Indeed, we tend to dismiss the prospects of Russian irredentism because Russia did not have a clear identity way back in the 1990s and early 2000s that suggested that politicians could score major points at home for annexing lost territories (although we didn’t rule it out either).  If Russia were to annex Crimea, it would very much fit the textbook definition of irredentism.  And irredentism, as of late, is frowned up by the international community, so Russia has engaged in disguised irredentism to minimize opposition from abroad–Abkhazia is an independent country, flying Russian planes?  Hmmm.

So, many folks are predicting a new frozen conflict, where Crimea is de facto a part of Russia but de jure an unrecognized but independent state.  Good times.  Especially for organized crime, since criminals thrive in such ungoverned spaces.

Those bending over backwards to see if Russia and the Crimean Russians have a legitimate stance on this will ponder: what of the Crimeans’ right to self-determination?  Others have seceded so why should the international community get in the way?  To be clear, this is not Kosovo.  The Crimea has not been repressed for years by the government in Kyiv.  And the new government did not make any serious threats to repress the people of Crimea.

There has been much written on the oughts of self-determination (not my specialty), but the Allen Buchanans and Margaret Moores of the world tend to focus on remediation–does secession address some serious grievance?  Why?  Because if people were able to secede readily whenever they were upset about losing an election, democracy would cease to function, as democracy requires an acceptance of losing much of the time (the funny thing in Quebec is that the Quebeckers actually win most of the time).  Yes, the change in government in Kyiv was not conventional, so perhaps the Crimeans have some kind of gripe that could be resolved via a referendum.  However, since their security was never seriously at risk, there is no need for someone else to intervene to “protect” them.

It is quite clear that Russia is creating a fait accompli that will allow Crimea to have a referendum under gamed circumstances. Why? I am not a Putin-ologist or a Kremlinologist, so I can only guess wildly.  Some would speculate that this effort is seen as a necessary effort to keep control over naval bases on the Black Sea, but one could have imagined Russia making nice with the new government (using threats and coercion but not forced secession) to continue to have access.  Some might see this as spite–to cause the Ukrainians pain for defying Putin’s will.  It could be that Putin is playing the nationalist card–appealing to the Russians of Russia by being the best defender of Russians in Ukraine, but there is no real political competition in Moscow that would force this move now.

So, I really do not know what is in Putin’s mind.  I have not had the chance to look into his eyes a la GW Bush.  It is probably more than one thing that is driving this crisis.  I will let the folks who are experts on Russia make those decisions.  All I can say is that irredentism is definitely on the table.  We may or may not label it such if Russia calls Crimea independent, but if Ukraine loses control over Crimea and Russia gains it, it will be far harder to disguise what has happened than in Abkhazia.

Which means we might have to put a second edition out of For Kin or For Country as we would need to revise the Russia chapter.


website | + posts

Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.