Why Vladimir Putin's Crimea victory may be the end of Russia's Ukraine blitz
The real prize is Kyiv, and the negotiations have already begun
Say what you like about Vladimir Putin. But his appearance at a joint session of Russia's parliament Tuesday was brilliantly staged.
It was, after all, a speech certain to be watched around the world. It had to look historic.
This was, of all moments, the one for Putin to put an end to any doubt about his intentions — not that there was very much out there — and sign a declaration making Crimea part of the Russian Federation.
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In the Kremlin, the camera shots were expertly cut to take in the whole scene and reinforce the key messages Putin was sending the world: the grandeur of the ornate chandeliers, the religious minorities sitting in the crowd, the flags on either side of him.
One thing that didn't have the appearance of being staged was the joy in that room.
Look at these events, for a moment, from Putin's perspective.
A man who has long lamented the fall of the Soviet Union, he finally managed to bring a serious piece of it back to the Russian fold — and without a single loss of Russian life.
No small feat. No wonder he's apparently doing so well in the polls.
And given the mostly lacklustre response from the West — many admonitions, sanctions against a small handful of Russian officials and vague threats of G8 expulsion — no wonder he doesn't look worried.
Ultimately, with Crimea now firmly in Russia's sphere, and Kyiv in the West's, the only way out of this is negotiation and diplomacy. The wheels are already in motion.
No war over Crimea
Putin's confidence at this point rests on his argument that Crimea's departure from Ukraine to join Russia meets international legal tests, despite what Western governments say.
He is relying on the notion that it was Crimea's semi-autonomous government that decided to hold Sunday's referendum, and that it was a majority of Crimea's people who voted resoundingly and of their free will to join the Russian Federation.
The outcome — 96.7 per cent in favour — was "more than convincing," Putin said yesterday.
There was little mention of the way the new Crimean government was formed in the wake of Kyiv's revolution — without Ukrainian participation; the absence of debate prior to the referendum vote in Crimea's parliament; the apparent barring of a Tatar Muslim member from voting on the referendum bill; and the fact that two Ukrainian television networks were unplugged on Crimean television, while a Russian station was added, leading up to the vote.
Of course Putin also outright denied — and still denies — that there were Russian soldiers on the ground in Crimea, forming the menacing backdrop to the political machinations.
But none of that matters to him now. With the overwhelming referendum vote, Putin clearly feels he is on safe legal ground.
He also knows the West ultimately won't fight over Crimea, especially if Kyiv is the prize.
Still in the G8?
Putin probably also calculates that while the big Western democracies might suspend Russia from participating in some of the upcoming G8 meetings, they are not likely to expel it, much as some of them might want to.
Russia joined the G8 in 1998 on U.S. encouragement, bolstered by the support of several member countries, including Canada.
The idea was that the benefits of including Russia in the exclusive club would be better than excluding it. Better politically, better for stability, potentially, one day, even better economically for all concerned.
Most G8 members probably still believe that is the case, despite Crimea. A quick look at a world map suggests why: Russia is still crucial to some of the world's big problems: Syria and Iran, to name just a couple.
Most of those European G8 countries also have strong economic ties with Russia, either as energy importers or as financial centres, that they don't want to mess with.
While some, like Canada, may be more hawkish on Russia, they will likely be forced to toe the line, if only to preserve some semblance of Western unity.
So the strong likelihood is that the G8 club will go some way in forcing Putin to pay for his Crimean grab, short of throwing him out.
Not unless Putin continues on a quest to bring more pieces of Soviet Russia back. Not unless he rushes into Eastern Ukraine to protect Russian rights there too.
Many diplomats and defence analysts are fairly certain he won't do that.
But he still keeps threatening to.
While he has repeatedly said that he has no plans of invading Eastern Ukraine, which also has a large contingent of Russian speakers, he has also insisted he retains the option should Russians there require his protection.
That option is unlikely as it would certainly elicit a much stronger response from the West.
But Putin's positioning provides the outlines for a deal, which has been taking shape right from the start, even as Russian troops were making their presence felt in Crimea.
Putin has apparently indicated to Germany's Angela Merkel that he may be satisfied with the idea of international military observers, forcefully barred from Crimea two weeks ago, going into Eastern Ukraine to look into Russian minority rights there.
Their presence on the ground — unarmed, small and ultimately symbolic — would still give the impression the West has managed to "do something" concrete about the worst crisis Europe has faced in some time.
In the absence of a will on both sides to actually go head to head over this crisis, symbolism — and stage management — is everything.