Saturday, November 8, 2008

Will Russia invade Crimea?

France's foreign minister accused Moscow recently of handing out Russian passports to Ukrainian citizens living in the Crimean peninsula. Crimea has a Russian majority, ethnically-speaking, and many (including prominent Russian politicians) have speculated that it could be reincorporated back into Russia. The peninsula has strategic importance in that it's home to the naval base of Russia's large Black Sea Fleet – an arrangement that Ukraine has recently begun to oppose. The handing out of passports is a threatening gesture, as protecting newly-minted Russian citizens was Russia's justification for invading South Ossetia and Abkhazia this summer. Foreign Minister Kouchner notes the obvious: that a "danger exists" that Russia will use these new citizens as a pretext to occupy Crimea and eastern Ukraine – but he also says that he doubts Russia will go through with it. Of course, he'd say that no matter what the truth were, but in this case, I'm inclined to believe him.

The threat to the Ukrainian government that these new Russian citizens on Ukrainian territory pose is useful in and of itself as Russia vies for control of Ukraine's top politicians. And though Russia handed out passports in South Ossetia and later invaded, residents of Transnistria (a pro-Russian break-away province in northern Moldova) already have Russian passports, and an explicit Russian occupation of Transnistria looks unlikely. Ultimately, I think that invading Crimea – which shares no border with the Russian Federation – would be too blatant of a move for Russia. For now, it looks like Russia is using the passports as leverage against Ukraine's leaders – but if the Ukrainians fail to yield to Russia, an invasion would be more likely. But I doubt that Russia will fail in co-opting such a weak political establishment as Ukraine's.

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