By Paul Goble
Vladimir Pastukhov, one of the most insightful analysts of Russian affairs, says that neither Russia nor Ukraine can retreat from their current positions about Crimea. No conceivable Russian government will ever give Crimea back to Ukraine, and no Ukrainian government will ever drop its insistence that Crimea belongs to Kyiv.
Because that is so, the London-based Russian analyst says, it is time to think outside the box and consider the possibility of a joint Ukrainian-Russian administration of Crimea, an arrangement that would allow each side to claim that it was not backing down and prevent the Crimean situation from further poisoning life in Russia, Ukraine and the West.
In an essay on the Republic portal today, Portnikov says that “the most important thing that we have lost in this war and that makes peace today impossible is the ability to like those with whom one does not agree” and thus be in a position to examine problems on which there are deep divisions in an open and potentially fruitful way (republic.ru/posts/93300).
“The problem,” he continues, is not that with regard to Crimea it is impossible to agree because of diametrically opposed approaches to the problem. The problem is that not one of the proposed approaches for various reasons is acceptable.” Both sides have a basis for claims to the peninsula, and neither is prepared to recognize any merit in the claims of the other side.
However much one objects to what has happened, it is not possible to simply go back to the status quo ante; but it is also not likely that the world will tolerate an eternal war given that as long as the Crimean problem is not resolved in some way, the war, “at least a cold one,” will continue.
According to Pastukhov, “there are no simple solutions. And those who say ‘Crimea is ours’ are lying. And those who say that it is possible to go back to the past are foolish. And those who hope that all will wind down and be forgotten are deceiving themselves. This is an unusual situation.” Everywhere “there is a dead end.”
Consequently, the Russian analyst argues, “it requires unusual moves at that moment when conditions for its resolution arise.”
The pro-war party in Moscow has made two serious miscalculations. On the one hand, it assumed that after the annexation of Crimea, the rest of Ukraine would quickly disintegrate and fall into Moscow’s hands either fully or partially. And on the other, it believed that the West would complain for awhile but gradually come to terms with the new de facto situation.
But Ukraine has succeeded in surviving – that is its greatest achievement, Pastukhov says – and the West, fearful that changing the border in the case of Crimea could spark a series of similar changes and completely undermine the existing international order, has proven unexpectedly steadfast to principle.
As a result, “’the price of Crimea’ has turned out to be much higher” that many in Moscow thought five years ago, Pastukhov suggests. It has turned out to be “one of the most significant geopolitical catastrophes in the history of Russia since the time of the formation of the Empire.”
It has involved Russia in a war with the West that will go on forever and a war that because of its smaller resources, it cannot possibly win and may lose in ways that will cost it the territorial integrity of Russia itself. “This is,” the analyst says, “worse than Afghanistan, albeit still less obvious and therefore still more dangerous.”
Nonetheless, neither Putin nor any future Russian government, except one installed by those who might defeat it militarily, will agree to give Crimea back to Ukraine; and Ukraine will not have the military strength to take it back from Russia. That means if disaster is to be avoided, some kind of compromise is necessary.
One possibility would be to transform Crimea into “an independent subject of international law operating under a mutual protectorate of Russia and Ukraine and with guarantees from the EU and the US.” That would save the face of both Moscow and Kyiv and avoid a humanitarian disaster in Crimea.
Arranging this would be difficult but perhaps not impossible. There would need to be an agreement on Crimea’s demilitarization and on Crimea’s functioning as a free zone, under joint administration. Of course, there would be enormous problems in getting to this point and sustaining it; but the possibility it could prevent a bigger disaster means it should be explored.