February 21st 2014. That is the key date in the recent Ukrainian crisis.
It’s not the 21st of November 2013, the date that President Viktor Yanukovich turned down a deal with the European Union in favour of stronger ties with Russia, leading to the first street protests. It’s not December 8th, when 800,000 people demonstrated on the streets of Kiev. It’s not January 16th, when parliament passed anti-demonstration laws that were subsequently repealed. Nor was it two days later, when policemen were shot by protesters as the demonstration escalated. On February 20th, a day that will live long in the Ukrainian collective memory, 77 protestors were killed by riot police. February 22nd was the day that Yanukovich was removed by an extra-legal vote from the Ukrainian parliament. On 28th February, pro-Russian troops seized control of Crimea. On March 16th that region held a referendum, with Russia recognizing the independent country the next day, the first step to integrating it into the Russian Federation.
None of the above are the most important date of the whole affair. That dubious honour goes to the 21st February, which was the day a meeting was held in Kiev between the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland, a Russian negotiator, President Yanukovich, protest leaders from the streets, and the political opposition. At this meeting it was agreed among other things that:
a) Ukraine would return to its 2004 constitution by September 2014;
b) Presidential elections would be held the same year;
c) “The Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, Poland and the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation called for an immediate end to all violence and confrontation”.
This was a compromise which suited all concerned. The protestors achieved a reverse of Yanukovich’s oppressive political reforms and an election date, the Europeans achieved an end to the violence as well as the likelihood that the next president would be pro-Europe, while the Russians kept their man in power for a while longer and saved any face that was previously being lost by the undermining of President Yanukovich’s position.
The next day, Yanukovich had fallen. With the ceasefire broken by the protestors, and with parliament voting for his impeachment on extremely questionable legal grounds, he disappeared, surfacing in Russia five days later. The only side that lost out due to this turn of events was the Russians (and Yanukovich himself, which bothered nobody). Putin found himself locked out of the new Ukraine that was now forming, and saw himself as the victim of what was at best a broken promise and at worst outright skulduggery; everybody, including the ever-sanctimonious Europeans, had given their support to the previous day’s agreement. At the very least Europe’s foreign ministers could have criticized the coup, considering it was extra-legal and undemocratic. Instead he saw the Europeans welcoming the new leaders, as the Western press presented the triumphant speech from the newly-freed Yulia Tymoshenko as something similar to Nelson Mandela’s release. With this hypocrisy, along with his new strategic position meaning that he now held no cards, Putin the poker player had to act, and Crimea was the result.
February 21st symbolizes a turning point in the crisis. It is the last day before events occurred which changed the roles of all the antagonists. Before the 21st, protestors were still protestors, Yanukovich was president and Russia and Europe were applying predictable pressure in either direction. After the 21st, the protestors and opposition had become an illegitimate government, Europe had hypocritically sacrificed its values for the sake of a positive result, and Russia was forced to take extreme measures to achieve its goals. Tellingly, in a meeting in Madrid on March 4th, after the occupation of Crimea, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told EU Foreign Policy Chief Baroness Ashton that the only way Russia’s actions could be reversed would be on the basis of a return to the February 21st agreement, presumably with a different president since Yanukovich was by that stage heavily discredited.
In itself, seizing Crimea did not advance Putin’s position a great deal. It was already the location of a Russian naval base (the lease was due to expire in 2017, although this would probably have been renewed after some negotiations which might have caused Russia to make some concessions). The GDP of Crimea is only $4bn, which is 0.05% of Russia’s GDP in 2012, hardly a significant addition. There are undersea oil reserves off Crimea which are estimated to produce about 7 million tons of oil per year, Russia produced 494 million tons of crude oil in 2009, again the gain is neglible. The fact there were insignia-less uniforms to hand at such short notice suggests that this is a play that has been available to Russia’s leader for some time. The manoeuvre, which was carried out perfectly and with very little bloodshed, including a rather stylish move to box in the Ukrainian navy, was a very effective way for Putin to achieve his aims. These were threefold:
1) Bring the Europeans back to the negotiating table over Ukraine, ultimately keeping Russia involved in that country’s future;
2) Save face both externally and internally - a great deal of Putin’s ability to manoeuvre comes from the illusion that he commands much greater power than he actually does;
3) Apply more financial pressure on Ukraine at a time when it is already facing deep economic problems. $4bn is 2% of Ukraine’s 2012 GDP, while the 7 million tons of oil will now have to be imported, possibly from Russia.
Predictably, the Western world has been thrown into a flap by these events. Rhetoric has abounded that this is “the start of a new Cold War” and “the most dangerous moment for Europe since the collapse of the Soviet Union”. In truth very little has happened, Russia has taken control of a region that should probably have been Russian in the first place without firing a shot (bloodshed during recent seizures of Ukrainian bases in Crimea is somewhat smoothed by the fact that it is post-referendum), and to great celebrations within that region. Once begun, the annexation process would have been extremely hard to reverse, but now with the referendum having taken place it would be virtually impossible to revert to the status quo ante, considering the attitude of the Crimean population.
Fears that Putin will now set his sights on Russian populations in Eastern Ukraine, before then taking over the Baltic states under similar pretexts are nothing more than fear-mongering. Crimea represented a unique situation in that it is almost an island, already contained a sizable Russian base which made an invasion unnecessary, and had a clear ethnic Russian majority. Taking the Eastern areas of Ukraine would be much messier, as it would be unclear where new lines should be drawn. Putin also knows that an invasion of the Baltic states would bring a robust military response from the West, since they are part of NATO. That is not to say that he will not threaten to do these things, Putin's actions in Crimea have given his threats a new credibility which he will take full advantage of at the negotiating table.
As such, what will happen is probably exactly as Mr Putin foresaw before making his move. The West will take a long look at Crimea and realise that there is little to be gained from causing themselves intense economic discomfort by imposing significant sanctions, when the ultimate aim would be the liberation of a region of Russians who are currently enthusiastically celebrating their imprisonment. Red lines will be drawn around the rest of Ukraine, with stern repercussions spelt out for what would happen in the event of Russia crossing them, and a period of diplomatic frost will follow. This will pervade until an American president needs Russian help in Iran, Syria, or somewhere similar, at which point there will be a rapprochement. Meanwhile both sides will return to the long-term struggle for Ukraine, with the West trying to find the money to consolidate the new government’s independence and Putin hard at work undermining it. In the great game that is taking place in Eastern Europe, the score currently stands at about 4-1 to the West.