Russia has annexed the Crimea and there’s damn all anyone can do about it.
Russia has a national desire not to be invaded from the West. I would call it an obsession, but that implies something inappropriate or pathological, and this is no such thing. Russia’s national desire is entirely appropriate given the willingness of European countries to invade Russia.
In the old days, the West had a sphere of influence and Russia had a sphere of influence and we mostly respected each others’ spheres and buffers. A hundred years ago this year there was a clash on the interface between Germany and Austria’s sphere of influence and Russia’s. The result was world war. That’s rare, however. Soviet meddling in Central America often bothered the US, occasionally inviting invasion (the last was the near-invasion of Nicaragua which was cancelled at the last minute).
Russia has not changed its view: it needs a sphere of influence to protect it from the ravening Teutonic Knights, or whatever their modern incarnation. They gritted their teeth at their weakness as we recruited the Baltic States, Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria into NATO, paring away their western buffer states. The remaining western buffers, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, were held close.
Countries which refuse to be bound by rules are labelled with two labels: ‘rogue states’ or ‘United States’.
When Ukraine presumed to have a colour revolution (theirs was orange, if you recall) and dumped their Soviet-style Russian-leaning administration the country was knocked back into line. This year as well, the Soviet-flavoured apparatchiks in Kiev (which we are meant to call Kyiv) were sort of dumped and Russia has again knocked Ukraine back into line. This time, in order to ensure that the Russian naval base in Sevastopol and the gas fields of the Black Sea do not fall out of Moscow’s orbit they have arranged a vote in which the citizens of the Crimea, who are largely Russian, have voted to become Russian citizens.
In recognition of this, and in full accord with the principle of self-determination of peoples; Russia has annexed the Crimea.
We the West are indignant. Our foreign ministries prefer to see the operation of ‘a rules-based international system’. Countries which refuse to be bound by rules are labelled with two labels: ‘rogue states’ or ‘United States’. (The term ‘rogue states’ is usually used by the Americans when other countries act like the US.)
The illegality of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea is neither here nor there. Like China’s annexation of Tibet or Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, international law is more wishful than powerful on the issue.
There’s the odd mention of the Crim Tatars, but Western complaints don’t generally mention the likelihood that the mostly Russian inhabitants of the Crimea would be no worse off under the (rather less repressive) Russian government than the Ukrainian government. It’s not the people of the Crimea who concern the foreign ministries of the West.
The salient factor here is that Russia considers the adherence of its remaining buffer states to be a vital national interest. Whatever sanctions or blustering our European foreign ministries offer, they will not budge Putin unless they make war on him.
Nobody understands this more clearly than the British foreign secretary, William Hague, who is more a strategist and more an historian than most. He knows it will make no difference to Russia, but nonetheless he has to join in the shouting because sometimes the shouting is all there is.
A hundred years ago this Summer the chanceries of Europe were willing to go to war to dent Russia’s sphere of influence (Austria-Hungary, Germany and the Ottomans) or to protect Russia’s sphere of influence (France and Britain plus eventually Italy and the USA).
This year nobody is willing to fight Putin over the Crimea. Denying the province to Russia isn’t especially in anyone else’s interests, so Putin will get to keep it.