By Paul Goble
Avraam Smulyevich, a leading Israeli specialist on ethnic issues in the former Soviet space, says that Kyiv might be forced to agree to a Trump-Putin deal on Crimea but that such a deal would “only convince the Russian dictator that he had invade other countries without being punished” and thus lead him to launch new wars.
“Putin himself has acknowledged,” the head of the Israeli Institute for an Eastern Partnership told Kseniya Kirillova in an interview published by Radio Liberty, “that the Syrian war is a training ground for his army and that the state of his army has really improved” (ru.krymr.com/a/28210963.html).
The Kremlin leader is “evidently preparing his country for war” in order, among other things, to preserve his own power by launching aggression abroad. The rest of Ukraine is less likely to be in his sights than the Baltic countries, Poland, or “some countries in the South Caucasus such as Azerbaijan.”
And in the current environment, Shmulyevich says, it is possible that Putin will reach an agreement with Turkey’s Recep Tayyp Erdogan “about the participation of the Middle East or a dash into Central Asia,” a region Ankara has long coveted and one that Moscow would like to rebuilt its power in.
With regard to a settlement on Crimea, he continues, “the return of Crimea is even more important for some representatives of the West than it is for the ruling Ukrainian elite.” That is because Kyiv wants to end the conflict as soon as possible, while some in the West want to maintain the principle of the inviolability of international borders by force alone.
That commitment explains the recent UN General Assembly resolution on Crimea, but Shmulyevich says, “it is important to understand that for the majority of the Western establishment, returning Crimea to Ukraine is not as important as simply finding a way to resolve it in a legal fashion.”
Putin clearly understand this, the Israeli analyst argues, and that explains why he bases his actions on what he says was Khrushchev’s illegal transfer of Crimea from the RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR and on the fact that the Budapest Memorandum is null and voice because none of its signatories has lived up to its provisions.
Putin’s people are also arguing that “the Helsinki Accords fixed inter-state and not intra-state borders, and that the state which signed them was not Russia or Ukraine but the Soviet Union.” Indeed, they point out, the only high-level international agreement both Russia and Ukraine have signed was the one creating the UN.
But from the point of view of Ukraine and the West, that too is a legal argument that undermines their case, Putin thinks, according to Shmulyevich. That is because when the Ukrainian SSR signed the UN treaty, it did not have Crimea within its borders, something other UN members may take note of.
What is thus likely to happen, he says, is a willingness in Kyiv to accept a deal if it formally keeps Crimea as part of Ukraine even if it does nothing to end Russian occupation, an arrangement unlikely to spark massive protests by Ukrainians given their reluctance so far even to declare war on Russia following Russia’s invasion and seizure of their territory.
In exchange, if such a deal were to be arranged, Russia would fulfill the Minsk agreements, returning the Donbass de jure but in fact retaining control there through the pro-Russian separatists on the ground who “redressed in Ukrainian uniforms” and with power remaining “in the hands of the local oligarchs.”
That would be a tragedy for Ukraine, Shmulyevich says; but a far greater tragedy would likely emerge from how Putin would read such a deal, as an indication that the West is not ready to stand up to him and that he can engage in more aggression with impunity.