PARIS – On March 12, Mustafa Dzhemilev, a leading figure among the ethnic Crimean Tatars, had a long conversation over the phone with Vladimir Putin. No doubt, they talked about the referendum that was set to take place four days later. According to what Dzhemilev reported to the Ukrainian media, the Russian president asserted that Ukraine’s 1991 Declaration of Independence, which was voted by Parliament after a referendum, did not “comply with the Soviet procedure laid down to leave the structures of the USSR.”
As the Kremlin did not offer its version of the conversation, we have no further clue as to what Putin meant. But in those words alone, we can conclude that the Russian president sees the entire dissolution of the USSR as an illegal act.
This could imply that Putin wants to re-establish the Soviet Union. In reality, he has already gone further than that. Still, his own regrets aside, the Russian president knows that the USSR belongs to the past.
During the 2012 presidential campaign (his third), he set out his vision of the world in a series of articles published by Russian media that ought to be read again in the light of what is happening today. For him, 20 years after the collapse of the USSR, “the post-Soviet phase of the Russian and global history has now come to an end.” During these two decades, Russia was in a phase of “recovery”, which is now “over.”
“Russia," he concludes, "will only be respected and able to defend its interests when the country is strong and stands firmly on its feet.” A new era was opening then – we are now in the middle of it.
The annexation of Crimea is disrupting the international order of the post-Cold War. In fact, it has already led to reversals of several trends, and foretells key realignments.
The most obvious one is the return of the United States in Europe. Concerned about “pivoting” towards Asia, discouraged by the failures of the Bush era in the Middle East, the Americans have let the Europeans handle the security of their continent, and even beyond, on the other side of the Mediterranean, by “leading from behind.” With the Ukrainian crisis, they are returning to the front line.
These last few days, American F16 fighters have been deployed in Poland, preceding Vice President Joe Biden, who arrived Tuesday in Poland before visiting Lithuania, both neighboring countries of Russia, members of the EU but eager to welcome American hard power.
The EU is deeply shaken. Should it expand towards the east? It had no common strategy regarding Moscow and is now paying for it. Its capacity to react, in the face of its state members' economic and energy interdependence with Russia, is inadequate, as are its defense policies. The invasion of Crimea has made these facts brutally evident.
Germany has become disillusioned in regards to Putin’s openness to dialogue, which has sent Angela Merkel packing, as well as her numerous phone calls and her pleasant idea of a contact group. Berlin is saying goodbye to the Ostpolitik that was so dear to its Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Saturday’s vote on the United Nations Security Council’s resolution denouncing the illegality of the referendum in Crimea has revealed Russia’s isolation. The resolution was rejected because of Russia’s veto, but not a single one of the other 14 members supported Moscow.
China abstained, revealing its ambivalence in this situation: President Xi Jinping hates popular uprisings as much as Putin does. He also thinks they are products of manipulations by the West, but, for Beijing, the principle of territorial integrity will not be challenged. Unlike the Russian president, who seems ready to sacrifice the benefits of globalization in the name of state power, China is fully playing the globalization card and does not want to destabilize the current system.
If Putin was counting on the enthusiastic support of the members of his customs union, he must be disappointed. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the eternal president of Kazakhstan, a country that is home to an important Russian minority, has been deafeningly silent. The Kremlin had announced a visit of the Kazakh president slated earlier this month, “upon invitation of President Putin,” but it never took place. On March 10, Nazarbayev did call Putin, but he also called Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, to whom he expressed his support of the principle of territorial integrity. We can understand that the leaders of the former Soviet republics, where many Russian-speaking people still live, may not feel particularly reassured by Putin’s commitment to “protecting the Russians and the Russian-speakers” outside their country.
Global governance, likewise, will not be spared by these sweeping changes. At the UN, the Security Council, as we have seen, has been paralyzed by Russia’s veto, one of the five permanent members. Will the Group of Eight (G8), scheduled to be hosted by Russia in June in Sochi, remain unscathed by this affair? The Western leaders have already reactivated the G7 (the G8 minus Russia), which only still existed at ministerial level.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has suspended Russia’s membership application. But, most importantly, the invasion of Crimea could have a negative impact on nuclear non-proliferation: under the terms of the 1994 Budapest memorandum, Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal inherited from the USSR in exchange for the protection of its territorial integrity. The non-compliance of these guarantees establishes a very poor precedent for countries that are being persuaded to renounce nuclear weapons, such as Iran.
Finally, a new energy landscape in which European countries would free themselves from Russia's Gazprom could take shape after this crisis. It is one hopeful piece of the emerging scenario. The rest, unfortunately, seems much darker.