The people of Crimea - on the insistence of the Provisional Government in Kiev they are still Ukrainian citizens - have voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining Russia.
They did so of their own free will, regardless of the fact there were polite, enigmatic and very well equipped anonymous soldiers in evidence throughout the region. The fact that Russia is far richer than the country they recently belonged to also had nothing to do with their decision. There was an emotional tug as well - Crimean Russians regard themselves as Russian.
What happens next, though, is anyone’s guess. According to the current version of the Ukrainian Constitution, the referendum doesn’t have any legal standing; according to the US and its friends in Nato, absorption of the Crimea by the Russian Federation would be illegal too. But there is a precedent: the Advisory Opinion, issued by the Court in The Hague (the supreme international law authority in such matters) on Kosovo, casts a strong doubt on those certainties.
It is immediately clear, however, that we have already entered a mini Cold War. This could turn into a proper Cold War, or even go 'hot', if the situation in and around the Ukraine carries on deteriorating. On the other hand the situation could calm (as the previous potential flashpoint over North Ossetia, similar but much smaller, did). For that to occur, the help of the “Russian Lobby”, prominent in London, which has become addicted to the billions siphoned off from Russia’s economy, needs to get involved.
Whatever happens next - and a correct prediction is well-nigh impossible - the genie let out by the coup in Kiev, and the Russian reaction to it, will stay. Above all, it is a core European problem, which has festered in the centre of the Continent for the best part of the last thousand years. Here we are, 100 years after the outbreak of World War One, or 200 years after the Vienna Congress, which started in 1814, grappling with the very same issues.
What is necessary now, as I have suggested a couple of times before, is a new Crimea Conference, as historically important as the Yalta Conference, also in Crimea, in 1945.
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The modern summit would be empowered urgently to look at a whole spectrum of issues - military, security, economic - including the status of the Crimea (perhaps considering some sort of free zone status as a way of compromise), the Russian Fleet, a glaringly necessary Marshall Plan for Ukraine… Even in preparing such a gathering there would be major obstacles. One of them, for example, would be the position of Poland, whose informal veto on the tripartite talks between the EU, Ukraine and Russia was at the root of the current troubles.
The problems this new Crimea Conference has to solve are immense. However the alternative is horrific. As in our war-torn past, war-mongers, war-profiteers and even more ominously, supposedly neutral people, who quietly argue that a little bit of conflict, cold or warm, is somehow acceptable, are more plentiful than ever. Alas, as often happens, we’re the ones who will pay a terrible price should hostilities escalate.
Alexander Lebedev is publisher of The Independent and Evening Standard
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