Crimea - The Prize and the Price
Russia's takeover of Crimea represents the checkmate of a geopolitical chess game between the Kremlin and the West. The game was opened by Putin’s decision to give a safe haven to US whistleblower Edward Snowden, and then continued with the Syrian crisis - seeing Moscow outsmart and outplay the Obama Administration - and culminated into l’affaire Ukraine, in which Russia has carved for itself, rather than found, the opportunity for recapturing Crimea after sixty years of separation and, by doing so, finalizing the first annexation of another country’s territory in Europe since World War II. Vladimir Putin has won. Thus, now there are but two significant questions: 1) what is the prize of victory? And 2) what is the price of victory?
The most important trophy of victory is Crimea itself. Controlling the peninsula is a geostrategic essential for Russia. Leaving Crimea’s sentimental value aside, the region hosts the Black Sea Fleet naval base, from which Moscow can project force into and throughout the Mediterranean. Notably, the majority of the Black Sea coastline is held by NATO allies except for Georgia, which is keenly pursuing NATO membership, on the east and Ukraine in the north.
Therefore, for Moscow, losing its naval base in Crimea would be akin to military emasculation. By incorporating Crimea into the Russian Federation, Putin has thus secured Russia’s enduring status as a Eurasian great power. Also, Russia’s assertiveness in protecting its Crimean naval base might result in Moscow establishing a substantial military presence in a key Asian theatre. In fact, Hanoi might decide that allowing strong-willed Russia to have its navy operating permanently from Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay would be a very effective way to counterweight Beijing’s increasing activism in the South China Sea.
Second, by showing uncompromising determination and effectively rattling his saber in Crimea, Putin has conveyed a sturdy message both to the West and to the former Soviet republics seeking to join NATO or other 'Western arrangements'. Namely, Russia has geopolitical imperatives and is going to affirm and defend them with any means it will deem necessary.
The Kremlin has also made clear that it considers any intrusion in the Federation's near abroad a strategic threat to Russian independence. Simply put, Russia means business. In addition, Putin has exposed Western impotence in a Europe still on holiday from strategy and further questioned the diplomatic resolve and martial credibility of the Obama Administration. From now on, Europeans would be better off to think strategically and be aware of their vulnerabilities when dealing with Moscow. Washington, for its part, must realize that Russia has learned to use the democracy and 'responsibility to protect' rhetoric in as Machiavellic a way as the US - and that the Russian President is a leader that thrives in confrontation, is now widely popular at home and, in a growingly multipolar world, has several supportive friends. Especially in Asia.
Third, on the domestic front the retaking of Crimea in spite of Western opposition has boosted Russian pride and nationalism. As a result, Russians are going to weather sanctions and diplomatic retaliation with their chins up. Actually, the US and the EU governments might find it difficult to put together - and cogently implement and sustain - a cohesive sanctions package. Because of their energy dependence on Russia and concern about losing contracts and economic links with Moscow, the Europeans are inclined not to be too heavy-handed with the Kremlin. Economic sanctions might end up hurting both ways, as people in Europe need to stay warm in winter. Besides, the Russian Federation is a large country with extensive resources and diversified trade partners. So, in key EU countries, the industry is lobbying vehemently against imposing sanctions on Russia. As for political-diplomatic sanctions, they are probably going to be generally ineffective. No doubt, Putin is going to wear the exclusion from G8 as a badge of honor at the next BRICS summit.
However, acquiring Crimea comes at a price, one that is both economic and diplomatic. The peninsula used to be umbilically reliant on Ukraine and the Russian government has acknowledged that the Crimean economy "looks no better than Palestine." Therefore, bringing the region in would require massive financial and infrastructural investments from Moscow. Anyway, even if all of these investments added up to US$ 20 or 25 billion, it would still be small change for the cash-rich Russian government. This said, the combination of international enmity and punitive decisions might significantly impact on Russia's economy and international standing. For example, Moscow will not be invited to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development any time soon, and will have to abandon any hope of including Ukraine - which has just signed an association agreement with the European Union - in the Russo-centric Eurasian Economic Union. Also, foreign investors could become more hesitant about risking capital in Russia and Russian companies could find it more difficult to obtain credit from Western lenders.
More importantly, Russia's relations with the West are going to enter in a new phase marked by mutual distrust and confrontation. "If it is the price of greatness regained" might remark the Kremlin, "we are ready to pay it." To Moscow's advantage, the Cold War era is unlikely to return. History does not repeat itself. Today's global political and economic ecosystem is one characterized by polycentricity and the tyranny of interdependence. Thus, envisaging a world which is once again neatly divided into two monadic blocks would be nothing short of unrealistic. Equally, to keep pursuing a vision of unilateralism in Europe would be detrimental both to the West and Russia. Time will tell whether the seizure of Crimea has been a masterstroke or a counterproductive move for Russia. If Moscow will be able to develop Crimea and turn it into a success story, it will prove that Russia is as responsible as it is resolute, and shift the burden of proof to the West, which has now the moral obligation to stabilize Ukraine and make it prosperous. Such is the price of Europe being geopolitically fluid again.