Russia and the West need a compromise over the Crimea

A peaceful peninsula would benefit Russia and Europe as well as Ukraine. Alexander Lebedev and Vladislav Inozemtsev explain how – and why

Alexander Lebedev,Vladislav Inozemtsev
Saturday 08 November 2014 00:51 GMT
A man lays flowers inside the burnt trade union building in Odessa, Ukraine, where more than 50 people died following a series of riots
A man lays flowers inside the burnt trade union building in Odessa, Ukraine, where more than 50 people died following a series of riots (AP)

Amid the latest reports of tank movements on Ukraine’s borders, the current confrontation between Russia and the West seems to be far from over.

Kremlin propaganda takes on Europe and the US more and more aggressively, while Western commentators unveil new sources of Russia’s incompatibility with the “free world” (as, for example, Gideon Rachman did recently in the Financial Times).

The “war of sanctions”, it seems, cannot change the situation: Crimea remains under Russian control, and some encouraging Russian moves in the east of Ukraine are caused more by internal concerns than by the West’s actions.

But, as the conflict becomes more enduring, it may cause grievous consequences. European and Russian economies will detach from each other; the borders in Europe will be challenged more often; the misunderstanding will mount and probably result in bilateral hate. Fears the Minsk accords could be unravelling yesterday sent the rouble sliding until the Russian central bank calmed nerves. We believe that these days there is no task more acute in global politics than to ease the existing tensions and to deliver a solid and credible strategy for a new rapprochement between the West and Russia. A compromise on Ukraine is badly needed.

What could it look like? We argue that the “grand bargain” should now be built around a bilateral climbdown, allowing both sides to save face but also to unlock the existing logjam. The West should rethink its attitude towards Russia’s actions in Crimea as being open and clear aggression; Russia, on its part, should clarify the causes for its annexation, even if it retains its control over the peninsula. The first step, therefore, would become a purely diplomatic position change that might (or might not) produce further results.

Reports from both the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the United Nations show that in the east of Ukraine not only separatists but also government forces are responsible for mass violence. So no one could guarantee that if the Russian forces had not entered Crimea, the peace would have endured there. The peninsula was the most ethnically diverse part of Ukraine with competing interests of different business clans; so it’s easy to imagine even more violent clashes there than in Donbass.

One should not forget the events in Odessa on 2 May, when more than 50 people lost their lives. If assessed in the context of that day, Russia’s action may be seen as what we call a “preventive humanitarian intervention” – of course, not totally similar to that undertaken in South Ossetia in 2008, but an explicable one. If the West expresses some readiness for such a change in its attitude, it may try to exchange the move for some concessions on Russia’s part.

The biggest such concession might be the acknowledgement that the incorporation of Crimea into Russia was an emotional act of improvisation. Russia may say that it was left without choice, fearing the rising vulnerability of the situation and expecting Ukrainian military operations after the 17 March referendum. Moscow may reiterate that, taking into account the “nationalistic” regime in Kiev, it will not debate the possibility of changing Crimea’s status until some profound changes in the Ukrainian state occur, ensuring that such a move won’t endanger the locals. The best case here may be to establish a clear link with some event that seems logically sequenced from the latest developments, but looks extremely improbable – let’s say, Ukraine’s accession to the European Union.

If one engages in such an “exchange”, the result may be a mutual agreement based not on claiming Russia’s actions were an aggression, and on a promise that the status of Crimea may be discussed after Ukraine becomes a full EU member. This compromise would eventually turn the whole Crimea problem into a Russia-EU issue and make only these counterparts responsible for the fate of the peninsula.

A new Yalta Conference could be organised on the issue – and it would be quite symbolic if it convenes in February 2015. Crimea could be proclaimed a special economic zone under Russian jurisdiction – something similar to Hong Kong or the Black Sea. With the Western sanctions lifted, the peninsula could become a crossroads for businesses from Russia, from Europe, and, not least, from Ukraine. A peaceful Crimea would benefit all sides of the current conflict much more than a continuing quarrel. Moreover, Russia’s promise of negotiating the future of the land to Ukraine would make Ukraine’s EU aspirations even stronger than they are now and affirm that, if the West wishes to help Kiev, full EU membership is the best thing it may offer.

Here we see the major benefit of our proposal. Of course, everyone knows how slowly the Brussels bureaucracy works. Of course, it is evident that, after 2017, all the EU members will be obliged to hold a referendum upon the adoption of any new member. Of course, it is quite simple to derail such a referendum in some small and/or Russia-friendly EU state.

Therefore, Ukraine’s EU future looks very dubious, at least in the 15 to 20 years from now – and this means that the whole project has one simple goal: to shift the final decision on Crimea from now to some distant future when none of today’s leaders will be either alive or in office. If one cannot solve the problem today, it’s better to put it aside for some time than to start a war because of it.

Russia and the West need a compromise over Crimea – a compromise that allows all the parties to return to “business as usual”; a compromise that leaves as many doors open as possible; a compromise that does not exclude (and even more – one that presupposes) Ukraine’s European perspective. If it were achieved, it might not only turn the Crimean peninsula into a wealthy province at the outskirts of Europe, it might launch a series of talks and negotiations on the future of other conflicts which exist around the Black Sea. With the Crimean issue eased, the time may come for Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia – and even for Karabakh. If the parties were able to deliver an intermediate status for such territories, they may become the creators of a new universal approach toward the unrecognised or semi-sovereign states, which seems to be one of the century’s most crucial problems.

But, if not to reach so far, we should firmly argue that for all this to happen, the Western powers should act first. Much of what happened in Eastern Europe in the last few years happened due to the lack of a coherent strategy on the part of the West. Today the time has come to elaborate and implement a coherent vision of the future. It should become the West’s best tool to shape the current fragile world – a world that will fall apart without compromises.

Alexander Lebedev is the publisher of ‘Novaya Gazeta’ in Moscow and ‘The Independent’ in London; Vladislav Inozemtsev is a member of the scientific board at the Russian International Affairs Council and a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna

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