Portrait of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck

Opinion: Crimea as a freehold

  • Crimea cannot be handed back to Ukraine or remain under Moscow’s direct control
  • Tolerance of the current situation poisons Russian, Ukrainian and international politics
  • There are ample precedents for territories with mixed or hybrid sovereign status

One basic fact is often overlooked in political discussions about Crimea. The peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea is not just a territory – it is first and foremost the people who live there. Crimea’s 2.34 million residents possess their own complex but distinct collective identity. When asking who owns Crimea, the only incontrovertible answer is: They do. Any position that ignores the existence, rights, and desires of Crimea’s inhabitants is immoral.

Simple acknowledgment of this dramatically narrows down the options for settling the territorial dispute. It rules out some impossible solutions, even if they seem just and acceptable to some people. As Otto von Bismarck used to say, “Politics is the art of the possible.” Not of the dreamable.

Not a mirage

On the one hand, Crimea cannot simply be returned to Ukraine. Uninhabited territory could have been, but not people. Yes, the initial enthusiasm for Russian administration has cooled somewhat. The rules set by Moscow turned out to be stricter than expected, and according to some reports, many Crimeans feel nostalgic about the last years under Ukrainian sovereignty. However, the population’s refusal to accept the Ukrainian government that replaced ousted President Viktor Yanukovych (2010-2014) is deeply felt, absolute and consensual. Any attempt to move in that direction would most certainly encounter mass resistance, running all the way to armed insurrection.

Another fact is that an absolute majority of Russian citizens is unable to contemplate or accept giving up Crimea – which limits the flexibility of any Russian politician who enjoys (or hopes to enjoy in the future) mass support of any kind. This fact is certainly recognized by Alexey Navalny, the most promising leader of Russia’s opposition, who put it this way: “Is Crimea a sausage sandwich to be handed back and forth?”

Any new disgrace – which is how a return to the status quo ante in Crimea would be perceived – will only aggravate Russian resentment

Never mind that Mr. Navalny’s own proposal – a new, “normal” referendum in Crimea on affiliation with Russia – is less than satisfactory, because it does not specify under whose auspices and on what legal basis the plebiscite would be held.

The “Crimean consensus” in Russia is not just a mirage created by intense propaganda (although propaganda certainly played a role). More than anything, it is the product of acute resentment, a visceral reaction to the USSR’s shameful collapse. Any new disgrace – which is how a return to the status quo ante in Crimea would be perceived – will only aggravate this resentment, transforming it from neurosis into a state of acute psychosis. We might assume that the disillusionment of millions of ordinary Russians could be soothed by the usual propaganda methods – but what if psychological equilibrium is lost by a few dozen colonels or generals managing modern weapon systems? The consequences are obvious, catastrophic and entirely plausible.

Toxic asset

On the other hand, Crimea cannot simply remain a part of Russia. Losing 5 percent of its population is unacceptable for Ukraine. The fate of over 2 million Crimeans is being closely monitored by the 6.5 million residents of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, who have already gone halfway down the Crimean road – if not toward Russia, then at least away from Ukraine – and do not display any desire to turn back. Not one Ukrainian politician with a shred of popular support can even think of hinting at any kind of a compromise on surrendering sovereignty over Crimea. That is because Ukraine has shaped its own “Crimean consensus.”

By the same token, Western political leaders and institutions cannot afford to lose face after unanimously denouncing (admittedly with varying degrees of passion) the Crimean annexation as a breach of international law. The claim is certainly true from a purely legalistic point of view, and attempts by the Russian authorities to deny the obvious have been utterly unconvincing. But harsh language from the West only narrows down the space for political maneuver – it is impossible to safely whitewash an arrangement that has been denounced too many times as the blackest evil.

Under current conditions, any attempt to resolve the problem must necessarily be futile

No one wants to stick their neck out. Not a single leader or institution is prepared to take responsibility for recognizing Russia’s claim to Crimea, which means that tensions with Moscow will not abate and could even grow. Under current conditions, the Crimean problem is insoluble, and any attempt to resolve it must necessarily be futile and counterproductive.

That makes Crimea a toxic asset – not just for Russia, but for Ukraine, the European Union and the United States as well. Exploiting it helps those involved reap certain dividends (mostly of a short-term and domestic nature), but for the most part, Crimea is poisonous to political systems and international relationships.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is greeted by residents of Crimea in 2014
The Crimean population’s initial enthusiasm for Russian administration has cooled somewhat, but their refusal to accept rule by the current authorities in Kiev is deeply felt, absolute and consensual (source: dpa)

Saved by irrelevance

So, is the situation hopeless?

The bad news is that Crimea can only be resolved if the leaders that contributed to the problem are replaced or radically renewed. That would presumably involve major structural, institutional, ideological and regime-related changes in Russia, Ukraine, Europe and the U.S. The precise nature of these changes will vary in each case, but the players and the game itself will have to be redefined from scratch.

The good news is that these changes appear to be happening already. American and European leaders are being replaced more often (except for the irreplaceable Angela Merkel). Political turmoil in Ukraine (including the temporarily paused civil war) has eased a bit, though there are no reasonable grounds to believe it is over. The political regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin is not eternal – and may even be entering its final phase, to be followed by a transformation that could bring fundamental changes, if not necessarily a complete breakdown. The need to radically reform the EU is so universally acknowledged that it cannot be long delayed. Amid all these changes, it is possible that Crimea will no longer be of special interest to anyone – except its own population.

Legal and political tools will have to be invented or rediscovered to create new territorial arrangements

It is this very irrelevance that could create room to resolve the Crimea problem, though the shape of the solution is impossible to guess. Most likely, legal and political tools will have to be invented or rediscovered to further the process.

Changes in Ukraine’s territorial arrangements, moving from a unitary to a more regional structure, whether based on local autonomy, federalism or even confederation, would be a virtually unavoidable and very encouraging development. The same can be said about a “reverse transformation” of the Russian Federation from a phony federal state into a real one. Crimea might even play an important role in this process, since it is classified within Russia as a “republic” – a status that is currently devalued, but which came rather close to limited sovereignty during the early post-Soviet years.

Perhaps international organizations (such as the United Nations, the EU, NATO, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Collective Security Treaty Organization etc.) could find ways to help in this process. If not, they will only provide further evidence of their incurable impotence.

Precedents galore

Whatever is proposed, it should be said that Sevastopol – which Russians treat as a “city of federal importance,” almost on par with Moscow and St. Petersburg – will remain outside the process. This is because of its military and strategic importance. As long as the Russian army and navy exist, they will not voluntarily leave Sevastopol.

Even so, there are plenty of precedents to draw from. The experience of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (which in Spanish is referred to as “a Free Associated State”) and the Federated States of Micronesia could prove very instructive. Taiwan has used its ambivalent and risky sovereign status as a springboard for development and prosperity. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is another example to consider.

Palliative, hybrid measures may work better than a single radical solution

The legacy of protectorates, mandated or trust territories, dominions and commonwealth realms has not always been bad — sometimes they have been quite successful. Even the status of a state that is not recognized de jure but accepted de facto by its principal neighbors and partners could be an attractive prospect, especially since extreme pragmatism is a hallmark of Crimean identity. While Bismarck may have been right in defining politics as the art of the possible, Alexis de Tocqueville – writing long before the German chancellor – was also correct in noting that “in matters of social constitution, the field of possibilities is much more extensive than men living in their various societies are ready to imagine.”

Most likely, a series of palliative, hybrid measures will need to be found instead of a single radical solution. But the starting point for any process will have to be an acknowledgment that Crimea is a freehold of the Crimeans and nobody else.

Otherwise, sooner or later, Crimea will become a theater of war. And the fighting could go far beyond Crimea.

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