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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Crimean Tinderbox

KIEV -- The greater the fanfare which greets a major policy initiative in this part of the world, the greater the thud as it becomes yet another casualty to the speed of events.


You couldn't get a much bigger hullabaloo than that which surrounded the nuclear disarmament pact signed last week between Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kravchuk. Just a few days later, that accord appears to be plummeting back to earth so fast you can hear the wind movements swirling around it.


The reason: the Crimean peninsula, a land of sun and sea. A place which lives, thanks to the wonders of 20th century Marxism-Leninism, somewhere in the 1950s. Where there are more battleships than teenagers and where a pensioner without a medal from the Stalinist period walking the streets of Sevastopol is as rare as a mafia hood walking a toy pekinese along the Arbat.


On Sunday, the autonomous republic, technically part of Ukraine, voted in presidential elections. There will be a runoff between the two leading candidates. It seems overwhelmingly likely that the Crimea will vote for a president who, during his election campaign, demanded independence from Kiev and reunion at some stage with Russia.


The fallout from this could grow to dominate events in both Russia and Ukraine. Crimea is a place which has yet to recognize that the Soviet Union is over, although the peninsula's claim to fame was to act as Gorbachev's prison during the three-day putsch which overthrew him in 1991.


Perestroika, Gorbachev's attempts to restructure the former U.S.S.R., barely touched the Crimea. Dominated by a vast military apparatus, even after the fall of the U.S.S.R., the military establishment that ran the peninsula with the local Communist elite continued to drift along.


Faced by a confusing future that meant an acceptance that Moscow's days as an empire were numbered, the region has all but voted for something Western governments most fear -- border changes. The pressure this is going to create is likely to unhinge the fragile stability that exists both within the Ukraine and Russia and between them.


At this point we are meant to believe that the secret protocols in the nuclear disarmament treaty, one of which allegedly deals with Crimea, will take care of things.


The idea is that if the Crimean Russians get uppity, then the entire dispute will be put to an international arbitration committee that will take so long to come to a solution that by the time it reaches any kind of solution, most of us will be in the grave.


We are also meant to believe that Boris Yeltsin, with a populist army he has to keep in check, will sit idly by and promise not to interfere in the situation as Russian nationalists tear down Ukraine's blue and yellow flags and hoist the Russian tricolor.


We are also to assume that Russia's parliament is going to refuse to interfere in the expected political battle over the Crimea.


Of course we also have to remember that in the fabled nuclear treaty, both Russia and the United States guarantee Ukraine's boundaries. That means, whatever Crimea decides to do, Russia has pledged to respect Ukraine's existing borders, i.e., the ones with the Crimea inside, not outside, them. Remember, that's the same Russia that said it wanted to bring peace to Georgia last summer when tens of thousands of refugees were camping in the Caucasian mountains while a breakaway region, Abkhazia, had an open arms supply line to Russia and an ample supply of Russian "Cossacks," otherwise known as mercenaries, to fight for it.


The likelihood is that extremists groups in both Russia and Ukraine are going to have a field day over the Crimean issue. There are parliamentary elections in two months in Ukraine. Nationalist groups have already voiced their anger over Kravchuk signing away nuclear weapons, although in a parliament bought off by the petty trinkets of power -- foreign trips, ambassadorships, and the like -- indignation alone probably won't form policy. But for those wanting to fight the president -- a growing number -- the loss of Crimea would be a godsend.


The implementation of any treaty, especially one so full of complicated technical questions which have yet to be sorted out, will be next to impossible.


The fact that Ukraine cannot service the weapons, let alone dismantle them itself, is not likely to be of immediate concern to lawmakers in search of a nationalist issue.


The only thing we have to rely on is the corrupt nature of the Ukrainian regime. It may be willing to sell its state to cling to power. In view of Ukraine's near total reliance on Russian oil and gas, the country's leadership may accept that bits of the state will fall off from time to time.


But even in Ukraine, a country whose leaders are so void of principle that you have to pinch yourself sometimes to believe it, that's pushing things a bit too far.


Nobody has lost money yet on predicting a 100 percent failure rate for treaties signed between the former Soviet republics. Maybe, with the United States in on this one as well, one could shorten the odds a bit, but only a bit.


Relying on U.S. smooth talk, Ukrainian amorality and Russian threats is no way to treat a treaty. This one will go the same way as all the other front page specials proclaiming peace accords.





Robert Seely reports from Kiev for The Washington Post and The Moscow Times. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.