by Svyatoslav Kaspe

Two years ago, I argued in GIS that the only way to resolve the Crimean problem was to respect the will of its people. To any sensible person, it should be obvious that preserving the status quo on the peninsula is unacceptable, while restoring the status quo ante is impossible.

This leaves a very narrow range of possibilities.

Any optimal solution was precluded by Russia’s irreversible decision to annex Crimea. One of the mysteries of the events of five years ago was why Russia did not stop at the declaration of Crimean independence on March 16, 2014, but instead took the next step and incorporated it into the Russian Federation two days later. Recognition and military protection of an independent Crimea would have given Russia virtually the same benefits it has now, while the costs – diplomatic and financial – would have been orders of magnitude less severe.

No going back

That ship has sailed, however. One sometimes hears a deceptively simple suggestion of doing it over by holding another referendum – this time honest and free, under international supervision. But that is no solution at all. For one thing, the legal grounds for repeating such a plebiscite are completely unclear. For another, a second referendum would not change the situation one bit.

I arrived at this conclusion after conversations with many friends and colleagues with personal links to Crimea. Some were born there, some live there, and some have done business there under Ukrainian and Russian rule. I asked them to cast their thoughts back to March 2014 and imagine an honest referendum – with no outside interference, no voter intimidation, no “little green men,” and with a full menu of options. The latter would include remaining under Ukraine’s sovereignty, becoming part of Russia, full independence, joint Ukrainian-Russian administration, or a transition government under international control (for example, a mandate administered by the United Nations, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or something else).

When I asked how the voting would go, the replies were very similar. Perhaps 30 percent supported independence, and about 60 percent supported full integration into Russia. This is a far cry from the official (and internationally unrecognized) result of 96 percent for annexation, but it would still be a clear majority for the same result, and closely matches almost every public opinion poll conducted in Crimea in 2014. No other options, whether Ukrainian sovereignty or an internationally supervised transition, were ever taken seriously into account.

Power of panic

Why this choice? The main reason was a horrible, panicky fear of a Ukrainian invasion and rule of terror that swept through the Russian-speaking population of Crimea in February and March of 2014. The fear was quite irrational. From the purely military point of view, it would have been impossible for Ukraine to send a punitive expedition through Perekop, the narrow isthmus that connects the peninsula to the mainland. The authorities in Kiev lacked the troops or the logistical capacity to mount such a campaign.

The rumors that swept through Crimea in late February that right-wing Ukrainian nationalists were planning to send “friendship trains” to Crimea were also overblown. At best, the Right Sector could have dispatched a couple of thousand militants to subdue two million people. The threat posed by a few inexperienced, poorly armed paramilitaries would have amounted to a bunch of Brownshirts (SA) at best, not Waffen SS legions. They would have been easily dealt with by the much more numerous Crimean “self-defense” forces that sprang up in late February 2014, to say nothing of Russian regular army units already stationed or quietly moving into the peninsula.

Nevertheless, the panic – no matter how unjustified – was quite real. At that moment in Crimea, Russia was perceived as the only protector from the specter of a “fascist Ukraine” that had reared its head on Kiev’s Maidan. Even today, people in Crimea insist they were right to think this way, even with full awareness of the economic privations and inconveniences of the subsequent Russian regime. Many even confess to being nostalgic about the last years of President Viktor Yanukovych’s rule, when the Ukrainian state was weakened by anomie and corruption and nobody was talking about forced Ukrainization. In the minds of Russian-speaking Crimeans, this was the closest thing to freedom they had ever experienced. But even more than freedom, they prized security.

Under such conditions, the possibility of Crimean independence (even as a fig leaf for Moscow’s remote control) was only ever on the table as long as there was no offer to join the Russian Federation. Once that option was dangled, the local population rushed to grab it. Turning back the clock and saying “no harm, no foul” is now unthinkable.

Gibraltar analogy

That leaves no good solution – and no quick one, either. As I wrote two years ago, “the leadership elites that contributed to the problem [should be] 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.”

This process has already begun, but it will be a long one. All that is possible now is to consider what conditions, sometime in the future, would allow at least a bad decision to be made. With that in mind, there is one promising line of thought.

The world is full of contested areas with complex histories – Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Western Sahara, Kashmir, Alsace-Lorraine, Northern Cyprus and the Kuril Islands, to name a few. In many places of disputed sovereignty, protectorates, mandates, dominions or commonwealth realms were set up. This principle has also been applied to strategic outposts like Guantanamo or Gibraltar.

Gibraltar is in fact a good analogy for Crimea. The positions of Spain and the United Kingdom over the sliver of land jutting into the Strait of Gilbraltar are irreconcilable. However, after many years of tensions, this issue has been completely removed from the agenda. There is no animosity between the British and the Spanish peoples or their governments; bilateral cooperation continues unblemished; both countries are united by numerous bonds, including common membership in NATO and (for the time being) the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of British subjects retire happily to sunny Spain; they take first place in numbers of tourists and foreign buyers of Spanish real estate. Russia and Ukraine could both learn from this example.

Another reason the analogy holds is the strategic and military significance of the two peninsulas. Given Gibraltar’s position as a chokepoint between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, it is impossible to imagine the British military willingly giving it up. The same can be said about Crimea’s position overlooking the Black Sea. The Russian military operates not just the vital naval base in Sevastopol but other facilities scattered all over the peninsula, ranging from air bases and radar stations to residential quarters and health resorts.

Crimea is the Russian army’s trophy, one that it would be reluctant to give up even if it were forced to abandon its traditional political neutrality. This makes any solution involving a demilitarized Crimea absolutely unrealistic. Given the peninsula’s strategic location, there will always be a military presence there – be it Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish or NATO-affiliated. Right now, Russia is in possession, and it is not clear how that can be changed. What is certain is that the costs of ejecting Russia from this bastion would be incalculable, for all parties involved.

Eyes on the prize

Isolating and neutralizing the problem of Gibraltar was possible because the UK and Spain had the common objective of participation in European and transatlantic integration. This is the sine qua non: peace arrives when it becomes more beneficial than war.

Is there an equally valuable prize for Russia and Ukraine? It is hard to say. Definitely not joining the EU – the present-day situation of Russia and Ukraine, along with the EU’s own internal problems, would preclude that. The best opportunity for such a convergence was lost about 15 years ago and will not reappear for some time.

The same, regrettably, is true of NATO, which in some ways would have been the easier goal (after all, Turkey is a NATO member). The only catalyst for such a scenario would be an external disruption, simultaneously affecting the European Union, the U.S., Russia and Ukraine, on a scale so catastrophic (think Martian invasion) that it would be best not to imagine at all. Equally fantastical would be the creation of a new integration framework combining, for instance, the European and Eurasian Economic Unions. Why would such a hybrid be attractive to anyone?

For the time being, Russia, Ukraine, and the West are all deriving benefits from the continuing confrontation over Crimea. The game they are playing is not zero-sum but positive-sum. To settle such a conflict, someone has to be seriously invested in peace. Financially and diplomatically, the required scale of effort is comparable to the peace processes in the Middle East, Iran, or Korea. All of these negotiations have been ongoing for a decade or mo