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Emomali Rahmon

Emomali RahmonRahmon

Russian poker in Crimea

The Russian intervention in Crimea with military threatening gestures causes one of the severest crises between the West and the East since the end of the Cold War. The actual Russian goals have remained unclear, which is why some possibilities will be presented in the following. A background article by Stefan Bernhardt

The military personnel stationed in Crimea have de facto taken over control of the peninsula – apparently with support from parts of the population, even though it is officially stated from Moscow that Russian troops are not involved in this. The Kremlin’s goal, however, remains unknown. Nothing has been explained as of yet. Furthermore, there is no evidence available for a focus on one specific motivation. The interview with Vladimir Putin did not reveal any goals either, as it merely clarified that Russia does not want a war.

Option 1: It is about the sphere of influence

One of the most popular speculations is the possibility that Putin only cares about his own or Russia’s power. He is supposed to have exploited the overthrow and the Russian minority’s fear in order to reject the EU’s influence and to destabilize or eradicate the pro-Western government in Kiev. In this scenario, Moscow would do everything to expand its sphere of influence and to prevent the loss of Ukraine.

Crimea would be playing a special strategic but also symbolic role in this. Putin could try to use the Crimean population’s mood to enable the integration into Russia. The Kremlin assumes, since no one can risk going at war with Russia, that neither the EU nor the USA nor someone else would take military action against Russia in such scenario. With this in mind, Putin can create new territorial facts with his actions: Either the pro-Western government would be stopped or Russia could at least assure itself of Crimea.

Option 2: An end to meddling and geopolitical games

In this scenario, the Russian intervention on Crimea is primarily about the EU and the expansion of its sphere of influence towards the East in competition with the Kremlin. A true cooperation of Moscow and Brussels never came about; too often, the EU ignored the Kremlin’s interests or engaged in feigned dialogues. One example is the issue of visa exemption, where Moscow proposes compromises whereas the EU adopts an almost purely rejecting attitude. There is also the continuing criticism of Russian domestic policy, which, from Russia’s point of view, is not merely criticism but a meddling with its internal affairs via the civil society. Brussels would influence the people’s opinion this way and would not respect their freedom to choose for themselves which state they want to live in. Direct and constructive talks with Moscow about this relation of competition between both sides have not been held by the EU, either.

From this perspective, the renewed overthrow in Ukraine would be an attempt of the EU to enlarge its own sphere of influence. Since the EU’s behavior – or that of the West as a whole – would not be acceptable for Moscow anymore, it was about time, from the Kremlin’s view, to draw a line. The present Crimean crisis would serve to force the EU back to the negotiating table and to show them that it needs to listen to Moscow if it seeks a peaceful neighborliness. But it also serves to show to Ukraine that the West will not help it sufficiently when it is needed.

Option 3: Kiev, make up your mind!

In this scenario, the Crimean crisis would be directed towards the new government in Kiev and maybe all future ones. For ten years, every Ukrainian government has had to face up to public anger. The reasons for this are corruption and self-enrichment at the cost of the Ukrainian people – regardless of whether the government was pro-Western or pro-Russian. Much more burdensome for Moscow, however, would be the fact that each government played off Moscow and Brussels for more money, benefits or other economic advantages. Whenever one side wants something, Kiev threatens to turn itself towards the other. The best example for this is Yanukovych: The EU did not make a satisfactory offer, he motivated Moscow to make a better one and finally received 15 billion dollar from Putin.

Here, Putin would draw a line and show the Ukraine that playing off in economic negotiations or energy issues must stop. It not only damages the relations of Moscow with the overall West but also the state budgets of Russia and the EU. The cost is, by now, higher than the benefit. With the Crimean crisis, it is shown to every Ukrainian government that this must be brought to an end. Either Ukraine picks a side or it takes on a neutral role and stops playing off between the two European powers, Moscow and Brussels.

Option 4: Protecting power Russia

Moscow would probably, if reluctantly, have accepted a pro-Western Ukrainian government that had been legitimized by means of elections. A government that is supposed to be one of national unity but excludes Yanukovych’s party and even involves nationalists, however, cannot be tolerated by Moscow. Furthermore, Moscow cannot accept a government that wants to take away the rights of the Russian minority in Ukraine.

Motivated by these considerations, the Crimean crisis would be a signal towards Kiev to exclude the nationalists from its political ranks and to turn away from them politically instead of cooperating with them. Besides, Moscow would show with its intervention that it is ready to protect the Russian minority’s rights if no one else in Ukraine wants to. Apart from that, the Crimean population was so afraid of the new government that it could have led to conflicts between Crimea and Kiev, which, especially due to the violent escalation on the Maidan, could have escalated as well. The Kremlin could not allow another trouble spot aside from the Caucasus. With the intervention, the people on Crimea were pacified and the Kiev government was put in its place.

The wisdom of hindsight

According to one’s own picture of Russia, one can surely choose which one of these four options applies. Realistically, one cannot know for sure yet; after all, no demands of the Kremlin are known which would allow for conclusions. Usually, there is a bit of truth in all of the options and it depends on the individual actors in the Kremlin who can decide Russian politics at the highest level. If one is honest, one must admit: Focusing on one motivation of Moscow without actual evidence – like specific demands – is purely subjective and speculative.