Vladimir Putin must be holding himself back, from the ecstasy of wrenching Crimea from Ukraine. Well almost. The contested southeastern Ukrainian region of Crimea holds a referendum today over whether it should join Russia or become independent. With Moscow almost jubilating over a geostrategic triumph — it is widely believed that Crimeans will say yes to the province becoming part of Russia — the stage is set for the conflict to become more complicated. The Ukrainian crisis is the worst between the West and Russia after the end of the Cold War. Russia isn’t saying it in so many words, but it knows the answer to the question on the ballot today. The province has a large Russian-speaking majority. The status of the language in Ukraine was elevated by lawmakers some years ago amid deep resentment and clashes in the Parliament. Culturally, it is closer to Russia. Geographically, it just needs a bridge across the strait in the Black Sea to make it part of the vast
For two centuries, Crimea belonged to Russia. In 1954, the Soviet Union gave it to Ukraine, which was part of the resurgent USSR. Russians attach a lot of cultural importance to Ukraine, which was a former Soviet Republic and became an independent nation after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed up the situation on Friday when he said that Crimea means more to Russia than the Falklands mean to Britain. Putin’s overseas representative was talking to journalists after a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry in London. The two sat in a sunlit garden but separated after a handshake acknowledging that no breakthrough had been made. Lavrov is known to have made it clear to the top US diplomat that President Putin is not prepared to make any decision regarding Ukraine until after the referendum. Russia yesterday vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning the referendum. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, China abstained.
With the stage set for the crisis in Ukraine on another spike as Crimeans vote in the referendum, the question is: what now? The West, with US in the lead, has lined up a slew of sanctions if Russia annexes the peninsular province. But the chances of sanctions working on Moscow are as strong as Western curbs were on Tehran. Vladimir Putin is known for his intransigence. The Russia under him still nurses the wounds of the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union, termed by Putin as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”. In 2008, it was Putin taking on former Soviet Republic Georgia, stripping the small Caucasus country of its two provinces — South Ossettia and Abkhazia. Now, it is Ukraine, with the probability that it will be stripped