Wasting no time – and equally wasting no opportunity when it came to official spectacle – Russia has gone ahead and annexed Crimea and Sevastopol. The trumpets blared, a speech clearly meant to indicate Russia’s supreme indifference to whether or not it is liked in the West was given by President Vladimir Putin, there was lots of applause, and the appropriate documents were signed.
A lot of people seem to be in shock at this. I know I was, when it first became obvious that Russia’s plans for Crimea did not merely include making Ukraine’s interim government jittery.
Then, of course, I got over my shock and got to thinking.
If you’ve traveled in Crimea for weeks and months at a time, like I have, you do tend to notice how the population that identifies with Russia does not particularly love the government in Kiev. It’s not surprising – Ukraine has been thoroughly mismanaged and pillaged by successive regimes for years – but Crimea, a beloved tourist destination in the Soviet Union, is a particularly sad case of mismanagement.
The issue goes beyond ethnicity. Many of the people living on the peninsula simply want their glory days back. They’re tired of looking at the crumbling facades of grand buildings gone to seed. They want better roads. They want more actual investment money pouring into the region.
In 2010, I was staying in Novy Svet, the home of famous Crimean sparkling wine, when I got sick and had to take a taxi to the hospital in nearby Sudak. While I was in the emergency room, talking to a doctor, I noticed an ambulance crew shuffling toward the exit. The doctor called over to them and they explained that there had been a call about an elderly woman suffering from an apparent heart attack.
“Maybe when we get there, she’ll already be dead,” one of the paramedics said. He really didn’t seem as though he cared.
I must have had a horrified expression on my face, because the doctor attending to me just shrugged his shoulders.
“You have to understand, they prioritize the young,” he said, clearly annoyed by my disapproval. “We just don’t have enough resources to save everybody. We don’t have enough hospital beds.”
Incidents like this are the chief reason why I am not surprised at Crimea’s overall determination to join Russia. Russia may have problems of its own – but it’s richer. It presents itself as a picture of stability in contrast with revolutions and upheaval in Kiev. For many residents of Crimea, that’s all it comes down to. The toppling of Victor Yanukovych was just a convenient excuse to get the ball rolling.
I really don’t know if these people’s hopes are realistic. We’re in uncharted territory now, where anything can happen. It remains unclear how Crimea’s ethnic Tatar minority, which vocally opposed annexation, will fit into this brave new world. It remains unclear whether or not the fragile Russian economy will withstand the cost of annexation, as well as the cost of looming sanctions. It remains unclear how the interim government in Kiev will respond to these shenanigans.
One thing is pretty clear, and that is the fact that Putin really doesn’t care what the West thinks of him at this point. He perceives the Western powers to be immoral and hypocritical and is much more interested in a closer friendship with China. From NATO expansion to the Iraq War, his list of grievances with Western leaders is a long one, and he believes he is merely playing by the rules that the West itself had introduced years ago. “If they can throw their weight around, why can’t I?” was the overall gist of his speech today.
Irritated by American exceptionalism in particular, Putin has decided that Russia can also be exceptional – when it wants. He doesn’t care about the G8, he doesn’t care about the fact that the nation’s political elite is now facing travel bans and asset freezes (he formally banned officials from keeping foreign assets last year, anyway), and he certainly doesn’t care that a “new Cold War” now looms.
For Putin – a man who came to power in a humiliated and demoralized Russia all those years ago – the old Cold War may never have ended.
For me, the real issue today is how Ukraine, an economically devastated site of a grand geopolitical game, will ultimately fit into all of this. If Russia stops at Crimea, things can still turn out OK. If not – all bets are truly off.
Photo by Free Grunge textures, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.