On April 27, 2010, the Ukrainian parliament ratified a lease extension for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol, Crimea. In exchange, Ukraine will receive a roughly 30 percent discount on natural gas imports from Russia, worth up to $40 billion over 10 years. If it works as advertised, Kyiv sold some of its sovereignty for a stronger economy. Given the current economic environment, few dispassionate observers would begrudge Ukraine this singular tradeoff. Yet the fate of the Black Sea Fleet is far from the most combustible issue facing Crimea. Crimea is at much greater risk of violence than most people assume, including those in Moscow feting the lease extension, because of two flawed tenets of conventional wisdom.
The first holds that Russia wants to annex Crimea and is merely waiting for the right opportunity, most likely under the pretense of defending Russian brethren abroad. This would be accurate if it could be done with no consequences. But Russia has seen that overt action in Crimea is a strategic loser, as evidenced by its failed attempt to assert claim to the sandbar island of Tuzla. This breach of Ukrainian sovereignty received nearly universal condemnation by Ukrainians, who supported the deployment of troops to secure the island. Russia is a bigger beneficiary of the status quo than Kyiv, and has greater incentives to avoid significant changes. The Sevastopol base extension only reinforces this. Furthermore, overt Russian action also risks undermining one of its major foreign policy successes—its effective use of soft power in Crimea. Russia’s deployment of soft and covert power has given it significant control in Crimea at a fraction of the physical and political cost of the so-called frozen conflicts in Transnistria and Georgia. This may prove a tempting template for expanding its influence within its neighbors.
The second tenet, common both inside and outside of Ukraine, is that Russia poses the greatest security threat to Crimea. While Russia’s behavior in Crimea undeniably encourages instability, it is only part of the problem. Crimea is far more complex, and at risk of civil conflict, than most recognize. Ethnic tensions, a widening fissure between Islamic and Orthodox Christian populations, disinformation campaigns, and cycles of elite-manipulated instability all threaten to throw Crimea into a downward spiral of civil violence. These issues have festered since Ukraine’s independence and are likely to get worse under President Viktor Yanukovych. They are ignored at great peril. The much-hyped fear of overt Russian intervention in Crimea is far more likely to result from these unaddressed issues spiraling out of control than from any deliberate plans coming out of Moscow.
William Varettoni is a former Foreign Affairs Analyst at the U.S. Department of State and currently a PhD candidate at the Maryland School of Public Policy. The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. government, and the interviews referenced herein reflect only those conducted as a private citizen.