One of the results of the fall of Viktor Yanukovych’s government has been the rising specter of the break-up of Ukraine and the secession of Crimea. The interim President, Olexander Turchynov, spoke recently about the dark prospect of “separatism” in his country, while early reports of the whereabouts of Yanukovych placed him in Crimea itself. Is Crimea likely to become the ex-President’s redoubt, and if so, would Russia intervene to support the secessionist region?
Both scenarios are unlikely. Yanukovych’s support is limited across the country as a whole, and if the new government is able to act calmly and deliberately, there will be little incentive to push toward a strategically risky—and potentially devastating—separation, either by Crimeans or by other Ukrainian citizens in areas of the country with sizable Russian-speaking communities.
The triangle-shaped peninsula, which juts out from Ukraine’s southern coast into the Black Sea, has so far been the great exception to territorial conflicts in Eurasia. Where violent conflicts erupted in the 1990s in other post-Soviet peripheries, such as Transnistria in Moldova or Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Crimea remained relatively quiet. The stakes for Ukraine and Russia were so large that both countries had little incentive to square off against one another. After all, with the two countries sharing assets and basing facilities in the port of Sevastopol—the seat of both countries’ Black Sea naval presence—stability, rather than contestation, was in everyone’s interest.
Until now, Crimea has thus seemed to confirm the idea that violence tends to break out in places where the stakes are low—that is, where states are weak and where strategic interests of outside powers are limited—not where they are especially high. But the region’s convoluted history has created a nexus of potential grievances that have long been available to unscrupulous or desperate politicians. There are the proximate grievances against Yanukovych and his associates for their handling of the Maidan protests in Kiev. There are the longer-term mutual grievances of Ukrainians who desire a state dominated by a certain version of (ethnic) Ukrainian language and culture, and those who desire a country where multiple languages and versions of history flourish. And there are the often silent minorities—Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, and Romanians, among others—who find themselves fitting uneasily in the alleged “pro-Europe” and “pro-Russia” camps (analytical categories that are, to a great degree, largely the creation of outside observers and journalists).
If the new Kiev government acts in ways that stress calm, good governance, and reconciliation—not retribution toward sections of the country that originally supported Yanukovych—the chances are good that Ukraine will weather the crisis. But the danger of the present situation is that grievances on all sides now exist in a context of political uncertainty, deeply personalized politics, and slow-motion state breakdown. This noxious combination has been the catalyst for violence in other previously peaceful places, and it will require steady leadership to prevent its outbreak in Crimea.
Will Russia intervene? Russian military assets are in place in Sevastopol, Crimea’s strategic port, and it would not require a great deal of effort to transform the naval presence on the ground into a putative peacekeeping force. Similar transformations took place in every other instance in which Russian troops moved in—and, it should be admitted, helped to halt—fighting between factions on the former Soviet periphery.
But unlike in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—the object of the brief 2008 military conflict between Russia and Georgia—Russian actions in Crimea would not be aimed initially at restoring the status quo in a long-simmering territorial conflict. It would in fact represent Russia’s taking sides in a brewing civil conflict over the rightful leadership of Ukraine as a whole. That would be both disastrous and unprecedented in recent Russian behavior in the former Soviet space.
At this stage, Yanukovych seems to have few supporters, and he is unlikely to garner many in Crimea. But the balance is tricky. Like in other multiethnic parts of Ukraine—the rust-belt east and the freewheeling city of Odessa in the west, for example—Ukraine as an idea succeeded among Crimeans when it was most capacious and laissez-aller: allowing the growth of a multilingual form of patriotism in which one could speak Russian and admire the old Soviet Union but still wave a Ukrainian flag on national holidays.
The Kiev uprising, if not handled carefully, may well destroy the very thing that allowed Ukraine to work. What happens in Crimea will be a test case not only for the farsightedness of Ukraine’s new leaders but also of the viability of Ukraine in its present borders. None of this requires a “Finland option” of Ukraine, as Zbigniew Brzezinski recently suggested, or some grand bargain among Europe, the United States, and Russia. It rather requires the one thing that has been missing in Kiev for many years: level-headed and genuinely patriotic statesmanship.