For Putin, sanctions could be a price worth paying in exchange for the Crimea

Is there a possibility that the voters could spring a surprise? A slender one

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Rarely has the day-after scenario mattered as much as it does in Crimea; it could change the complexion of Europe, if not of the wider world. The day itself – tomorrow, Sunday, when voters in Crimea are due to take part in a referendum about the future of the peninsula – has acquired a momentum of its own, “a steamroller racing downhill”, as it has memorably been described by one Russian commentator.

The overwhelming odds are that a majority, perhaps an overwhelming majority, of the electorate will vote for reunification with Russia. Crimea was administratively part of Russia for two centuries and has been part of Ukraine for only the past 60 years. Some 60 per cent of the population are Russian-speakers, with Ukrainian-speakers and Tatars making up the rest. Even before the intense propaganda campaign of the past two weeks, there was strong pro-Russian sentiment in Crimea, where a large number of Russian service personnel settled and remained after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The questions on the ballot paper are “Are you in favour of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea reuniting with Russia as a constituent part of the Russian Federation?” And “Are you in favour of restoring the Constitution of the Republic of Crimea of 1992 and of Crimea's status as part of Ukraine?” The middle way of greater autonomy within Ukraine is not an option.

Is there a possibility that the voters could spring a surprise? A slender one. If, for instance, the Ukrainian speakers and ethnic Tatars turn out in large numbers; if the fiercely anti-Russian Tatars turn out to be more numerous than the estimated 12 per cent of the population – which is possible, given their comparatively high birth rate and the numbers still returning from exile; if Crimea’s Russian-speakers turn out to have developed a greater sense of allegiance to independent Ukraine over the past 20 years than is generally believed, and if the clumsiness  of the propaganda raising the spectre of fascism rebounds, then there is a very slight chance that Crimea will reject reunification with Russia and the immediate crisis is averted.

Would Russia accept such a result? Many Western experts on the region would say not: the prevailing view is that Moscow’s whole stance since the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych as Ukrainian president three weeks ago has been designed to speed the “recovery” of Crimea. My own sense is that Russia might well be relieved that the voters had given it a way out of its current predicament and would wait until after the Ukrainian presidential elections, scheduled for 25 May, either to engineer a new referendum in Crimea or talks with a new Ukrainian government. In the meantime, though, Russia would leave its beefed up forces in the peninsula on the pretext of securing its key naval base at Sevastopol, which it occupies legally, on a 25 year lease.

This would afford a breathing space for all concerned. But it is a very remote possibility. Far more likely is a vote for unification with Russia – which is where the day-after problems begin.

There is bound to be an outcry, not just in the rest of Ukraine, but in much of the Western world. The referendum has no legal standing for a host of reasons. The current Ukrainian constitution outlaws secession; there would have to be a vote in the Ukrainian Parliament to facilitate a referendum along such lines – as the Scottish referendum had to be approved by the UK parliament. The referendum was rushed through opportunistically after the fall of Yanukovych by regional leaders, encouraged – it has to be presumed – by Moscow. A legitimate referendum had been planned for later this month, with a question about enhanced autonomy. There is a big difference between that and what is happening now.

 

Then there are the conditions, essentially of martial law, in which the referendum is taking place – conditions that are coercive and restrictive – and the highly emotive nature of the accelerated campaign, which plays on fears of fascism and the repression of minorities and conjures up spectres from Ukraine’s occupation during the Second World War. Most sources of alternative information – such as Ukrainian-language TV channels – have been blocked.

One way to reduce the damage to east-west relations from the expected result of the referendum would be for Moscow to accept that it is illegal or, at least, to withhold its endorsement. It could do this indirectly, by postponing any decision until after Ukraine’s presidential elections or by declining Crimea’s request for reunification. There is a precedent: the Kremlin rejected a request from South Ossetia (the pro-Russian enclave in Georgia) to unite with North Ossetia (in Russia) after the 2008 Georgia war. But Crimea is a far more emotive issue, and doubly so in current circumstances.

And there is a real question whether President Putin would want, or can afford politically, to agree to what would inevitably be seen as a diplomatic retreat. The cause of Crimea is a matter of great national pride in Russia; Putin’s popularity ratings have risen in direct proportion to the shrillness of the campaign, and – while there are dissenters in the pro-Western intelligentsia - public opinion has been whipped up into a frenzy of patriotic fervour that will be hard to contain. For Putin personally, annexing Crimea would also disguise the deeply unpalatable fact that, as a result of everything that has happened, Ukraine is now moving decisively into the western orbit.

It is also doubtful whether the diplomatic and economic costs for Russia of annexing Crimea, as threatened by Western leaders, will be a sufficient deterrent. Ever since Russian troops fanned out of their bases into Crimea proper, the US and the EU seem to have drawn a notional line between Crimea (essentially accepting it as already “lost”) and the rest of Ukraine, where any direct Russian involvement would prompt the return of something akin to the Cold War.

Putin could well calculate that the highly selective sanctions threatened would be a price worth paying for the present popularity and future legacy he would gain by reincorporating Crimea into Russia. There would be frost in relations for a while, but not the deep freeze that would follow an incursion elsewhere in Ukraine.

A far preferable outcome would be if Putin resisted the undoubted pressure from the Russian parliament and public and stopped short of endorsing annexation on the day after, choosing to enter talks with the interim government in Kiev instead. But it has to be admitted that, on the eve of the vote, this day-after scenario looks unlikely.

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