The gleam of victory on Vladimir Putin’s face rivalled the glitz of the Grand Kremlin’s St George’s Hall in Moscow yesterday. Speaking to lawmakers, the Russian President delivered a ringing endorsement of Crimea’s annexation to the Russian federation. As Putin signed papers in the presence of the head of the Crimean government Sergei Aksionov and head of the Sevastopol city administration Alexei Chaliy, the Russian national anthem heralded the joining of the autonomous Ukrainian region with Russia.
With jubilation in Russia and Crimea and resentment in Ukraine and the West, strongman Putin’s masterstroke in his third term will go a long way in steeling his image and consolidating his political constituency.
In a speech laced with defiant rhetoric, Putin tried to whip up emotions by invoking the patriotic element. “There are graves of Russian soldiers on the peninsula whose courage enabled Russia to make Crimea part of the Russian Empire in 1783,” Putin said.
The referendum, which drew heavy criticism from the West, gave a 96 percent yes vote to the question of the disputed region becoming part of Russia. However, there remains a weak spot for Putin. The Crimean Tatars, who are Muslims, have voiced scepticism over separating from Ukraine. The former KGB spy tried to alleviate their concerns. “There was the period, where the Crimean Tatars experienced injustice. It is necessary to adopt political, legal measures to finalise the process of rehabilitation of the Crimean Tatars,” Putin said. After Moscow strong-armed ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich into signing a customs union, it drew Ukraine away from the West. The European Union’s attempt to bring Kiev into its fold crashed as Yanukovich did a last minute about-turn, derailing plans of the 28-nation bloc to integrate it into the Eastern Partnership Programmes.
Absent from the ceremony was Yanukovich, who is on slippery ground after fleeing from insurgency-hit Ukraine and finding shelter in Russia. Putin railed at the West’s support to Kosovo’s secession from Serbia. Moscow was never for the right to self-determination of Kosovars. What about the right to self determination of the people of Chechnya and Dagestan. There has been a raging insurgency in the North Caucasus against Moscow’s rule. If the Kremlin could support separation of Crimea from Ukraine it doesn’t have a right to deny the right to self determination to the people of Chechnya and Dagestan. Incidentally, Doku Umarov, the leader of the Islamist insurgency in North Caucasus was reported dead yesterday.
If it was Abkhazia and South Ossettia in 2008, and it is Crimea today, what’s next for Putin? Moldova’s Transdniestr? The former Soviet Republic of Moldova yesterday warned Moscow against any such adventurism in the Russian speaking region of the state. It’s becoming hard to halt Putin’s march. Only a harder stance by the West can do so.