Europe’s gravest crisis since the Cold War enters a new phase on Sunday if the population of Crimea votes – as, in all likelihood, it will – to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia. Technically, to use the parlance of the US State Department, an “off-ramp” still exists, whereby Moscow would eschew full annexation and accept a solution offering greater autonomy for a peninsula which would legally remain part of Ukraine.
But given Russia’s overt and covert support for the secession movement, and the referendum’s presentation of the vote as a choice between a return to the Motherland and Nazi rule, such an 11th-hour compromise seems unlikely.
Nor, whatever the warnings conveyed by US Secretary of State John Kerry to his opposite number Sergei Lavrov in London today will Moscow be unduly bothered by Mr Kerry’s talk of “very serious” retaliation by the West. This will primarily consist of co-ordinated EU and US sanctions, to kick in as soon as Russia endorses the result of the referendum, which the West insists is illegal. So much is predictable; what happens thereafter is anything but.
Plainly, for reasons of history and perceived national interest, Moscow will not allow Ukraine to move into the Western orbit – at least not in anything like its present shape. Crimea for all practical purposes is already gone. The key question now is whether Russia’s territorial ambitions end there, or whether the referendum is merely the start of a de facto, even if not de jure, takeover of large swathes of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, in effect partitioning the country.
To this end, the Kremlin has been doing everything it can to destabilise its southern neighbour, encouraging its local sympathisers to defy the weak and virtually bankrupt new government in Kiev, and carrying out military exercises close to Ukraine’s eastern borders.
Having acted to foment the unrest, Moscow has now accused Kiev of losing control of the country, warning that it reserves the right to intervene to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine if these latter are in danger. This crisis has a long way to run and could very easily grow worse.