As the crisis following the Russian annexation of Crimea continues to develop rapidly and unpredictably, a series of economic sanctions against key Russian individuals have been put in place, with the possibility of more to come. But, writes Dr Eleanor Bindman, the annexation of Crimea now appears to be irreversible, and this must be accepted by the EU.
The imposition of travel bans and asset freezes on various high-ranking Russian and Crimean politicians is so far the only step the EU has taken in terms of sanctions against Russia, and the range of options now available to the EU in terms of further action is not appealing.
Despite the tough talk of increasing economic and political sanctions, the dependence of many of the EU 28 on Russian gas exports and bilateral trade mean that any further measures taken are extremely difficult to agree upon. Given that the response from the Russian authorities to these sanctions has largely been derision, it seems unlikely that in the short-term they are capable of influencing the actions of Russia’s leadership in any significant way.
As a result, there must be an increased effort to engage Putin in negotiation and diplomacy, however distasteful this may seem at present, rather than further isolating Russia. This is a crucial step in ensuring the future territorial integrity of Ukraine and the fact that Russia agreed on 21 March to allow an OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) monitoring mission into Ukraine (but not Crimea) after weeks of opposition to such a move signals that a small window of opportunity for negotiation may have opened up.
Russia is likely to use its new position on Ukraine’s doorstep to try to control, manipulate and intimidate both the current interim government in Kyiv and the government which will be formed following presidential elections scheduled for 25 May and parliamentary elections due to take place in the autumn.
This makes these elections even more important than they were previously – if a new government with a similar make-up to that which has assumed control in Kyiv is elected, Putin will be able to continue to accuse it of nationalist and neo-Fascist tendencies and of bias against Russian-speakers, however exaggerated this view may be.
It is vital therefore that there is at least one viable candidate for the presidency who is seen as representing the interests of those regions in the south and east (predominately Russian-speaking and which formerly tended to vote for former President Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions), and that any new government contains at least some representatives of these regions.
This will counter Putin’s claims that Ukraine has no legitimate government with which to negotiate and offers the best chance of defending Ukraine’s future territorial integrity.
Given that Russia has now extended its borders to encompass formerly Ukrainian territory and has expressed its determination to protect the safety of its Russian-speaking ‘compatriots’ in the south and east of Ukraine, there have understandably been fears that Russia is building up to a further military intervention in the country with the potential to lead to much greater bloodshed than has been witnessed so far.
This, however, seems unlikely at present given that Putin has already won a significant personal and political victory in retaking Crimea and exposing the limited room to manoeuvre available to the EU and US in trying to respond to his actions.
Further military action in Ukraine has so far been ruled out by his administration and, with some exceptions, there has been little desire on the Russian side to launch a full-scale conflict leading to military and/or civilian casualties even within Crimea itself. In addition, the presence of OSCE observers who are currently being deployed to Ukraine for a six-month period further mitigates against the likelihood of further military action.
It is also worth noting that, rather than being part of a strategy to take over part or all of Ukraine which has been many years in the making, Putin’s actions in Crimea have been an opportunistic response to what he saw as a power vacuum and political chaos in Ukraine which threatened Russia’s interests there.
The result has been that Russia is now faced with absorbing an impoverished region whose vital tourist industry is likely to suffer major losses as a result of its annexation. This will cost it dear in terms of state financial resources, not to mention the reputational damage Russia has sustained internationally in the past few days and weeks.
It seems therefore that Russia as well as the West may be in need of some breathing space in order to process recent events and the priority must be ensuring a period of stability in Ukraine over the next few months in order to allow the upcoming elections to proceed fairly and transparently.