Crimea assessment, March 1, 2014

On March 1, Crimea’s regional parliament in Simferopol elected Sergiy Aksyonov as the region’s prime minister, and called for a referendum on the status of Crimea. The Ukrainian government in Kiev immediately declared the election illegal. Aksyonov claimed that all military units in Crimea should operate under his control rather than Kiev’s, and then said publicly, “I call on the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, to provide assistance in securing peace.”

Russian troops have spent the last few days securing strategic assets throughout Crimea, including the parliament building in Simferopol, Simferopol International Airport, other airbases, and as of Sunday were surrounding Ukrainian military bases and asking Ukrainian troops inside to disarm themselves. Several sources report that the initial wave of Russian troops may have come from the Sevastopol Fleet Base, but that additional troops are being ferried in by Russia.

Analysis: President Putin is taking advantage of the chaos in Ukraine to cement Russian control over the majority-Russian and heavily militarized Crimean territory. I believe it is unlikely that political pressure alone will convince Putin to withdraw his forces. The referendum on Crimean autonomy is likely to succeed, given that a thin majority of the population does identify more closely with Moscow than with Kiev. The outcome could be outright secession from Ukraine, or Crimea could claim greater autonomy, while remaining part of Ukraine administratively. Crimea is too small to succeed as a completely independent state with its own currency and foreign policy, so full autonomy would likely come at great economic cost to the territory’s residents. None of the other pro-Russian autonomous territories in the region, like Abkhazia, South Ossetia or Transnistria have well-functioning economies, economic integration with other countries, or good standards of living for most residents. This is a case though where political passions win out over economics.

Russia may also face some political and economic costs, as Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that Russia will lose foreign investment and may be removed from the G-8 economic group. Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet base at Sevastopol are critical strategic assets for Russia however, and Putin may believe that more direct control over Crimea is worth any pain the international community can inflict.

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