No clear fix to Russia-Ukraine stalemate

Richard Gwyn
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That Russian President Vladimir Putin should have violated international law blatantly and brutally by sending thousands of troops into the territory of his neighbour, Ukraine, makes it certain that no settlement of the struggle between these two states can ever be achieved.

But that the people of Crimea should have just voted overwhelmingly to change their citizenship from Ukrainian to Russian makes it certain that some settlement has to be reached.

Since one side or the other cannot avoid a humiliating defeat, the stalemate between the two is almost absolute.

The weekend referendum in Crimea was, of course, in sizable measure a farce.

No international observers were allowed in to determine whether the election process was fair. The presence of the troops would have motivated many who might have voted the other way to stay at home.

And yet, while the European Union has denounced the vote as “illegal and illegitimate” it has, revealingly, not gone on to dismiss the outcome as “inaccurate.”

The hard truth is that the available evidence suggests pretty strongly that even the most scrupulously run election would have ended with a clear majority of the people of Crimea voting as they did, if with a reduced majority.

Such an outcome was always probable because most Russians in Crimea believe genuinely that Crimea is Russian, with as many or more in Russia itself believing the same with a deep conviction.

The two were one during the three centuries since Catherine the Great gained the promontory for Russia.

The Crimean city of Sevastopol’s long resistance to the Nazi German armies (almost as long as Leningrad’s similar heroism) became to all Russians a source of immense pride.

The two were parted entirely randomly.

This happened in 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev, then the leader of the Soviet Union, handed the Crimea to Ukraine, a merely symbolic gesture because Ukraine then was not an independent state but a kind of province within the Soviet Union.

This political accident was turned into a reality in 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved hurriedly with Crimea’s new identity being confirmed in perpetuity, as much as anything by oversight.

As well, many in Crimea welcome the change as much for economic reasons as emotional ones. Wages there and the region’s total economic output are easily the lowest in all of Ukraine.

Put simply, valid reasons exist for a great many in Crimea to wish to exchange Russia for Ukraine.

That said, there’s a great deal else to be said.

Putin’s actions are and will always remain utterly unacceptable.

U.S. President Barack Obama was entirely right to warn Putin that his tactics would bring down upon him “costs.”

These have just begun in the form of a series of sanctions, a process of punishment that will be steadily intensified in the months ahead. At the same time, large amounts of financial aid will be advanced to Ukraine both to enable it to survive the inevitable economic shocks and to begin to build up its own military defences.

Except that what will happen as a consequence will be a continuation of the mutually destructive stalemate. Thus Russia will counterattack the American and European and Canadian, sanctions with cuts in its supply of oil and gas to Europe, including Ukraine.

The longer this quasi-war continues, the greater the risk of actual outbreaks of violence.

For Ukraine, the hard truth is that Crimea will never rejoin it, because its people don’t want to. No less certain is that no matter Putin's manoeuvrings, Ukraine will sooner or later join the European Union because this is where the vast majority of its people want to be.

Each therefore will win, and each will lose.

Neither will be satisfied. But the stalemate will end. Thereafter, people on each side can make up stories about how they won.


Richard Gwyn’s column appears every

other Thursday.

Organizations: European Union

Geographic location: Crimea, Russia, Ukraine Soviet Union Sevastopol U.S. Europe

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Recent comments

  • Chantal
    March 20, 2014 - 09:15

    I feel bad for the Ukrainians who will have to pay for all this "financial aid" from the IMF to fund weapons sold to them by the West's arms industries. Higher fuel prices, cuts to pensions, public services, government, and the privitization of the Ukranian public assets to Western interests. Oh, and welcome to NATO. We know you didn't ask for it, but here it is.