Ask Ukrainian Ambassador to Mexico Ruslán Spirin when he thinks Russia will pull out of the Crimea, and he will give you a winded spiel about Russia’s historic dependence on his country in order to avoid answering the question.
“Kiev was the birthplace of the Russian identity,” he told The News earlier this week, noting that his nation’s capital is almost twice as old as Moscow.
“The Russians cannot function without Ukraine. During the Cold War era, Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, providing 80 percent of the USSR’s foodstuff. And 80 percent of Soviet scientists were Ukrainian.”
Spirin will also tell you that Moscow has been plotting to reclaim Ukraine ever since the former Soviet republic gained independence in 1991 and began flirting with the European Union to become a Western ally.
But ask him about how the sanctions imposed by Europe and the United States in 2014 after Moscow’s unabashed annexation of Crimea and its ongoing blatant military support of separatists in the eastern part of the country are going, and he will admit that the result has led to little more than a political standoff, with Vladimir Putin and his henchmen defiantly refusing to budge despite world condemnation.
“The sanctions are hurting the Russian people because Russia’s economy depends heavily on petrochemicals, which is its major export,” Spirin said. “But the government strongmen are not affected because they still have their well-padded bank accounts and luxurious lifestyles.”
And Spirin is right.
Despite a crumbling, commodities-heavy economy, a plunging ruble, double-digit inflation and rampant unemployment, the Russian honchos are feeling no pain, and Vladimir Putin is still as hell-bent as ever on his grand vision to corral former Soviet republics back into the fold under his proposed Eurasian union bloc (a new USSR for the 21st century, if you will).
“Russia’s expansionist ambitions did not begin with Ukraine,” Spirin said.
Spirin pointed out that Russia began its territorial manifest destiny with land-grabs in parts of Moldovia, Georgia and (with the help of its lapdog Armenia) Azerbaijan.
“Russia saw an opportunity to invade Ukraine during a period of political transition,” Spirin said, “and it took advantage of that opportunity.”
The expropriation of Crimea was one more exercise in political muscle-flexing for Putin, and while international sanctions targeting Russia’s defence, energy and banking sectors may have led to a temporary lull in his European expansionist plans, Moscow has not backed down from its tenacious stance that Crimea is part of an extended Russian dominion.
The annexation of Crimea was a message that resounded loudly across all 11 of Russia’s time zones: We are a power to be dealt with, and we will not give in and not retreat.
Despite the heavy financial and military costs of maintaining Crimea, Putin cannot afford to back down on his annexation of the territory because he will look weak and lose face in the eyes of his supporters.
“Russia is not playing by international rules of conduct,” Spirin said. “It has its own book of rules, and even those change when it is convenient for Moscow.”
So what is the solution? How can Russia be coaxed out of Crimea and other parts of Ukraine?
Spirin said that there are only two options: a military one, which he said goes against Western values (and since Russia far outguns Ukraine, is not feasible for Kiev), and a diplomatic one.
“We are following a diplomatic approach,” he said. “We know that it can be a long and tedious process, but we have no other alternative.”
Meanwhile, the Russian occupation of Crimea and the quasi-existence of Donetsk and Lugansk as breakaway republics effectively block Ukraine from joining either the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was one of Russia’s major incentives for the annexation.
In the end, Putin is winning by maintaining the stalemate.
As Spirin said, diplomacy may be Ukraine’s only viable path, but, for now at least, it simply isn’t working.
Thérèse Margolis can be contacted at [email protected].