As the situation in Kiev has calmed, a standoff has developed in Crimea, raising the risk of a wider Ukrainian conflict. How this unfolds is impossible to predict, but it can end well only if the country’s new leaders make it clear that their revolution was about ousting a corrupt and abusive regime, not putting down pro-Russians in the east.
Much attention in recent days has focused on Russia’s intentions, and that’s understandable. President Vladimir Putin raised the stakes by ordering military exercises, and now what seem to be unbadged Russian soldiers have seized control of Crimea’s airport. It’s all too reminiscent of the way Russia behaved toward Georgia before invading in 2008.
This situation is different, though. Putin is not itching to annex Crimea, and he can hardly think it possible to win a short and glorious war in Ukraine, as he did in Georgia. He is, however, using Crimea to intimidate the new authorities in Kiev and could be provoked to intervene.
It’s particularly worrying that armed Russian-speakers have seized the Crimean parliament and called for a referendum on territorial status. But Ukraine’s leaders shouldn’t respond, as President Viktor Yanukovych did, with force.
Already, they have made two unfortunate errors. One was to revoke a law that enabled regions with large minorities to declare a second official language — such as Russian, in the east.
The other was a warning from acting President Oleksandr Turchynov that any movement of the Russian military in Crimea outside its large naval base in Sevastopol would be treated as an act of aggression. This made him a hostage to fortune: Russian forces routinely move out of their base, and responding as if to an act of war by Russia would be suicide. Should Ukrainian security forces now attempt to “re-establish constitutional order” in Crimea, as a Georgian general put it in August 2008 when he initiated a military assault to take back separatist South Ossetia, Russia will invade.
A number of steps can be taken to contain this crisis. When Turchynov goes to Crimea to speak with the local leadership, as he has promised, he should make clear that expanded autonomy for Crimea and other Ukrainian regions will be on the table — including the right to use Russian as an official language. To remain whole, Ukraine will need to loosen its constitutional structure. Both sides should understand that if Crimea holds a unilateral referendum on independence, such as the Crimean parliament appears to be proposing, it is a recipe for bloodshed.
Western diplomats can help by supplying the financial aid Ukraine needs, with clear conditions to ensure economic reform and the protection of civil liberties, including for Ukraine’s east. U.S. President Barack Obama should be in regular contact with Putin, to see that there are no misunderstandings about what is being done and why. Similarly, Germany and Poland, which have been heavily involved from the European Union side, should keep up a three-way dialogue with Russia, again at the highest level.
As for Putin himself, if he shows restraint — and restrains pro-Russians in Crimea — he can emerge a statesman, and one who retains influence in Ukraine. To that end, he shouldn’t insist on Yanukovych as Ukraine’s legitimate president — despite Yanukovych’s own insistence, reiterated Friday at a news conference, that he remains in office.
Assuring that Putin takes the high road will require good behavior and careful diplomacy from Ukraine’s new leaders. It’s up to them to prove that Russia’s caricature of their revolution as a seizure of power by radical nationalists is wrong.