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Why Geopolitics, Not Economics, Governs Russia's Crimea Decision

03/15/2014 03:57 EDT | Updated 05/15/2014 05:59 EDT

A restive peace hangs over Crimea as the Black Sea peninsula awaits Sunday's referendum to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation. Troops from both countries are amassing across what was once a largely arbitrary border. With more than 50 per cent of the Autonomous Republic's population comprised of ethnic Russians (followed by Ukrainians and Muslim Tatars), it should come as no surprise that the vote will favour enlarging the world's largest country even further.

Unilaterally announced by the Crimean parliament, this vote has been decried as illegitimate by the G-7 nations, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, (whose observers were turned away at gunpoint), international scholars and virtually everyone outside of Vladimir Putin's Russia -- as well as many inside it -- but it will not matter.

Ukraine and the rest of the world may not accept it, and Russia may not enforce it, but for reasons of memory, identity and strategy, Crimea's quasi-legal accession is a fait accompli.

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Credit: Ilya Varlamov

Crimea's history is ancient, stretching back 2,500 years to Scythian nomads and Greek colonists. During the 10th Century, the peninsula became Orthodox Christianity's stepping stone into the region's first great Slavic civilization, the Kievan Rus, forever tying the heart of Russian spirituality to the city of Kyiv. Its geographic location on the Black Sea saw Crimea constantly contested between European, Asian & Mediterranean powers such as during the eponymous Crimean War.

Towards the end of the Second World War, Stalin deported the region's predominant Tatar population to Siberia for allegedly collaborating with the Germans, permanently alienating that ethnic group in the process. It was his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who engendered the current situation by gifting the peninsula to Ukraine in 1954, ironically to mark its 300th anniversary as part of the Russian Empire (Khrushchev was reportedly drunk when he made the then-entirely symbolic gesture).

As a warm-water port, Crimea has always been vital to a Russian navy desperately short of them. Currently, its Black Sea fleet is anchored in Sevastapol under a lease with Ukraine that runs until 2042. Thus, according to The Atlantic correspondent and Stratfor chief geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan, Ukraine is the geographical 'pivot' for Russian ambition as explained in his book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate: "With Ukraine back under Russian domination, (demographically enfeebled) Russia adds 46 million people to its Western-oriented demography, and suddenly challenges Europe."

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Credit: Ilya Varlamov

Having suffered the double shock of losing both its Warsaw Pact buffer zone of Central European states (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria & Romania) in 1989 as well as the 14 other Soviet Republics that constituted the U.S.S.R. just two years later, Putin's claim that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th Century" begins to makes sense as a salve to a humiliated nation with a unique sense of itself. A nation that defeated Hitler (Western narratives about World War Two conveniently forget that 88 per cent of all German battlefield casualties fell against the Red Army), sent the first man into outer space and carved out an empire that covered 1/6th of the world's surface.

Since the fall of the U.S.S.R., Russia has sought to maintain its suddenly truncated influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (euphemistically named "the Near Abroad") through a variety of diplomatic instruments such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Eurasian Union. It's had more success tightening the screws of its vast repository of export-oriented natural resources, such as its manipulation of natural gas supplies to Ukraine and Western Europe.

Despite the very tangible political or economic benefits it could bring, Russia never considered peacefully ceding any of its remaining territorial holdings to its neighbours. During the 1998 financial crisis for example, President Boris Yeltsin never thought of selling the sparsely populated, almost vestigial property of Sakhalin Island in the north Pacific to a cash-rich, land-poor Japan, even as Russia desperately needed hard currency to prop up a crashing ruble. As Kaplan discovered in Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus, "Russia knows how to play a weak hand well."

If and when Crimea votes to leave Ukraine for Russia, Western economic sanctions will surely follow if Russia happily embraces the peninsula. However as area experts Anne Applebaum and Ben Judah have argued, the buoyancy of London's banks and Miami's art markets will minimize any concerted efforts against the Russian oligarchs who have greatly enriched them over the past two decades.

Riding a wave of post-Olympic approval and a hard but widely popular line against culturaldissent, it may not be the bank accounts of the elite that Putin will have to concern himself with. Neither Russians nor Ukrainians want to go to war over Crimea, according to my friend Alexei Kolomontsev, a St. Petersburg-based journalist with the online Russian magazine Telegraph: "We just want that whole damned thing with Crimea to be over because that situation makes the ruble weaker, which makes the common people poorer." Yet if history is any guide, Russians will privilege their national pride over their pocketbooks.

A Ukrainian friend, Valeria, works for a multinational enterprise in Kyiv. She was overjoyed at the ousting of corrupt Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich, widely seen as a Russian figurehead. She would be "very optimistic about things if it were not for Crimea." Like most others in both countries, she doesn't want to see war over the peninsula's future, a war that Ukraine will almost surely lose against a country that fashions itself as its 'big brother'. But she says that decision ultimately rests with Putin alone: "I hate all of it, I hate the idea of it and try to think and talk myself into a miracle saving us somehow."

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