Russia’s Takeover of Crimea Needs Careful Action

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Price’s March 25, 2014 blog post.

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On Friday March 21 President Vladimir Putin signed the annexation treaty making Ukraine’s autonomous Crimea region a part of Russia. The port city of Sevastopol on the Black Sea, home to Russia’s naval fleet in the region, was included.

Russia flexing its muscle in Crimea was reminiscent of the World War II Stalin era. It was in 1944 that the minority Muslim Tatar’s were deported from Crimea, and shipped off to the Urals. Stalin had accused them of collaborating with the Nazis. Thousands of Tatars died along the way. Ironically male Tatars were serving in the Soviet army at the time. Upon their return home they found their families gone.

 

As the Cold War was ending in 1989 the exiled Tatars were allowed to return to their ancestral homes in Crimea. Many of the 250,000 Tatars living in the region still remember vividly being expelled from Crimea by the Soviets. They see Putin as Stalin’s protégé, and fear for the future. A number of Tatar’s have joined the ranks of the Islamist rebels fighting in Syria, attempting to oust President Bashar al-Assad, who Putin supports.

In Crimea ethnic Russians represent 60 percent of the population. Last weekend they were celebrating the annexation in the capital, Simferopol. The Tatars were not so jubilant, since they were required to make a decision–either to accept Russian passports or risk losing their  property.

The Tatar jihadists in Syria are joined by Chechen and North Caucasian Islamists affiliated with Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. These extremists have extensive combat experience, and could return to undertake attacks against the Russians in Crimea. Peace in the region may be short lived.

Islamists issuing a “fatwa”—a declaration of war against the Russians–could bring thousands of Islamist extremists to the region from around the world. The Europeans should be concerned since the terrorists could reach their soil. The saber-rattling and economic sanctions will not stop  Russia’s integration of Crimea, which has a historical relationship.

The Caucasus Emirate, including the break-away republic of Chechnya, is a confederation of twelve regional provinces that are predominantly Muslim. Their goal is to expel Russian presence from the North Caucasus, and create an independent Islamic State ruled under Sharia.

Caucasus Emirate Islamists could create instability throughout the region in support of the Tatars in Crimea. They have been responsible for terrorist attacks and bombings in Russia, including an apartment building in 1999, a theater in 2002, a school in 2004, a high speed train in 2009, the Moscow Metro in 2010, the Moscow’s airport in 2011, in Dagestan in 2012, and a number of suicide attacks in southern Russia in 2013. The Tsarnaev brothers, who undertook the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013, are both ethnic Chechens having trained there.

Mr. Putin supports Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Assad, and has now indicated that he may not cooperate with the international community to help destroy Syria’s chemical weapons cache. Syria is in its third year of a chaotic civil war in which tribal, ethnic, religious, and Islamist factions are fighting for control. There are over 11,000 Islamists in Syria coming from nearby Arab countries, Europe, and Iran which is also an ally of al-Assad. Regime change will bring about a vacuous situation, which could allow Islamists to take control.

We need Mr. Putin’s cooperation if there is the slightest chance of finding a solution in Syria. Ousting al-Assad will not bring peace or democracy to this fractious country. His minority Alawite tribal members live in fear of annihilation. The U.S.-NATO incursion into Libya emboldened al-Qaeda linked Islamists who captured and killed Col. Muammar Gaddafi, and in his hometown of Sirte slaughtered many of the Warfalla tribal members.

Since then democratic institutions have failed to take hold in Libya. Instability in the country has seen attacks on government officials, foreign diplomats, and international aid workers. In 2012 Islamists attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.

Islamists in Libya now control three major shipping ports in eastern Libya. They also control large swaths of the country, including the oil producing sites in the southern desert. Oil exports to Europe have all but ceased, since the government has not been able to stop the Islamists from taking control.

Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa, and the 5th largest in the world. Europeans import 85 percent of Libya’s oil and depend on the source.  Since Gaddafi had threatened to cut off supplies on several occasions the European countries needed to consider alternative sources from Russia or Iran. The military incursion to remove Gaddafi offered the opportunity that the flow of oil would continue to Europe. Now the sanctions against Russia has the European leaders wringing their hands, since Russia as a major trading partner controls the natural gas, and possible access to oil sources.

The imposed sanctions could backfire, if Mr. Putin halts cooperation on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov recently stated, “We wouldn’t like to take advantage of these negotiations as an element of gambling with a higher ante,” adding that Crimea’s reunification with Russia far outweighs the developments surrounding the Iranian nuclear program.

Russia’s takeover of Crimea is a “fait accompli”. As such we need to continue to focus on controlling Syria’s chemical weapons, and Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. President Obama’s current trip to Europe needs focus more on these issues, and not overly denounce Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

Senator John McCain (R-AZ) insisting that we install the scrapped missile defense system in Poland and Czech Republic could further exacerbate the tenuous situation with Russia. There will be an opportunity in the future to address that issue. But for now finding alternative natural gas and oil sources for Europe seems to be a more  pressing issue.

President Obama needs to find a diplomatic solution, with hopes that Russia will reverse its acquisition of Crimea. We need to immediately engage the Tatar, and Caucasus Emirate leaders so as to avoid retaliation and terrorist attacks which could destabilize Europe. The planned U.S. military exercises with Ukrainian troops in Russia’s backyard will further exacerbate the crisis. If we are not careful we could be inching closer to World War III.

While Mr. Obama is in Europe he should plan to have a beer with Mr. Putin to get better acquainted. This could be the beginning of a friendship and better understanding each other’s goals. World leaders may misunderstand Mr. Putin’s real motives, and overestimate his desire of rebuilding the Russian Empire. Spending time together socially might diminish the hostility, and even reach a diplomatic resolution to the Crimea standoff—it’s worth a try.

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