TWQ: Crimea’s Overlooked Instability - Summer 2011

It was, perhaps unfortunately, a picture broadcast round the world. Ditching decorum, Ukraine’s protesting parliamentarians hurled eggs, set  off smoke-belching flares, poured glue in voting machines, and duked it  out (literally) within their legislative chamber on April 27, 2010. At issue was the parliament’s ratification of a lease extension for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, Crimea. The lease was due to expire in 2017, but will now (most likely, although  nothing is ever set in stone in Ukrainian politics) continue through 2042. In exchange, Ukraine will receive a roughly 30 percent discount on  natural gas imports from Russia, worth up to $40 billion over 10 years.  If it works as advertised, Kyiv sold some of its sovereignty for a stronger economy. Given the current economic environment, few dispassionate observers would begrudge Ukraine this singular tradeoff.

The basing extension is unlikely to be reversed, and Crimea has once again receded from the headlines. This is both disappointing and dangerous, because the fate of the Black Sea Fleet is far from the most combustible issue facing Crimea. Crimea is at much greater risk for violence than most people assume, including those in Moscow feting the lease extension, because of two flawed tenets of conventional wisdom.

The first holds that Russia wants to annex Crimea and is merely waiting for the right opportunity, most likely under the pretense of defending Russian brethren abroad. This would be accurate if it could be done with  no consequences. But Russia has seen that overt action in Crimea is a strategic loser, as evidenced by its failed attempt to assert claim to the sandbar island of Tuzla. This breach of Ukrainian sovereignty received nearly universal condemnation by Ukrainians, who supported the deployment of troops to secure the island. Russia is a bigger beneficiary of the status quo than Kyiv, and has greater incentives to avoid significant changes. The Sevastopol base extension only reinforces  this. Furthermore, overt Russian action also risks undermining one of its major foreign policy successes—its effective use of soft power in Crimea. Russia’s deployment of soft and covert power has given it significant control in Crimea at a fraction of the physical and political cost of the so-called frozen conflicts in Transnistria and Georgia. This may prove a tempting template for expanding its influence within its neighbors.

The second tenet, common both inside and outside of Ukraine, is that Russia poses the greatest security threat to Crimea. While Russia’s behavior in Crimea undeniably encourages instability, it is only part of  the problem. Crimea is far more complex, and at risk of civil conflict,  than most recognize. Ethnic tensions, a widening fissure between Islamic and Orthodox Christian populations, disinformation campaigns, and cycles of elite-manipulated instability all threaten to throw Crimea  into a downward spiral of civil violence. These issues have festered since Ukraine’s independence and are likely to get worse under President  Viktor Yanukovych. They are ignored at great peril. The much-hyped fear  of overt Russian intervention in Crimea is far more likely to result from these unaddressed issues spiraling out of control than from any deliberate plans coming out of Moscow.

William Varettoni