Coffee House

Ten fateful forks in the road to Crimea

25 March 2014

4:00 PM

25 March 2014

4:00 PM

Regret suffuses the post mortem on many a conflict, with hindsight recommending alternatives that were far less obvious at the time. Crimea is different. Rarely can the fateful choices — those critical forks in the road — have been so evident as those that have led Russia, Ukraine and the West into this conflict.

A different choice at any one of these 10 junctures could have averted immediate danger and indicated a route back to safety:

1. Last summer it became apparent that Russia and the EU were increasingly at loggerheads over Ukraine

It was Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Union vs the association agreement on offer from Brussels. As November drew closer, the EU – in part, perhaps, because hawkish Lithuania held the presidency — treated Ukraine’s decision as a now or never choice between East and West, even though Ukraine’s disunity, and discomfort, were clear for all to see. The option was there to defer any signing or to explore – as the European elder statesman, Romano Prodi, among others, suggested – some interim arrangement. That was rejected by the EU.

2. At the Vilnius summit, Ukraine’s President Yanukovych said No to the Europe deal

A few days later he said Yes to a – very necessary – bail-out from Russia. If Brussels had offered real money, as Moscow did, he might have said Yes and we do not know what would have happened next. What did happen is that Brussels raged as though Ukraine was lost to the West forever and thousands of protesters descended on to the streets of Kiev, bolstering one of the more surprising developments of the recent past: an impassioned pro-EU demonstration.

3. As huge EU flags fluttered over the streets, Yanukovych was confronted with the choice all beleaguered governments must make

He could offer solid concessions, such as bringing forward the presidential election by a year, to early 2014, and serious consultations on reforms, but he did not. Piqued when his first proposals for a unity government were rejected, he resorted instead to the tool of panicked governments everywhere. On 17 January, he signed legislation against protests in central Kiev and called in the riot police to crack heads.

4. The protesters, many of them young, then had a choice about whether to go home or stay and fight


Infuriated and emboldened by the repressive new laws and evidence of EU support for their cause, they stayed and turned their ire on the ruling elite. What had been a protest against one policy – Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU association agreement – became a protest against everything he stood for in their eyes, starting with rampant corruption and failing government. Violence escalates through mid-February.

5. At this point, the EU could have left the President and the protesters to fight it out

Instead, it sent a delegation, comprising the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland, to mediate between Yanukovych and the opposition. Russia also sent an envoy – the moderate, Vladimir Lukin. An agreement was hammered out, which was underwritten by the EU envoys and tacitly supported, so it seemed, by Moscow. The ball was now in the court of the protesters and the Ukrainian parliament. On 22 February, the day after it was signed, opposition leaders backed the deal, which included early elections and in the interim an emasculation of Yanukovych’s power, but they could not make it stick either on the Maidan or in Parliament. The scene was set for new confrontation.

6. Instead of backing the EU-sponsored agreement, Parliament voted to remove Yanukovych

He was indicted for the protesters’ deaths and subsequently fled. It is still not known who the snipers were who opened fire in Kiev on 21 February, and there were casualties among the police, too. But the deaths had served to discredit his leadership; in the eyes of many, he had forfeited any democratic legitimacy he might have had. His flight infuriated his reluctant patron, Vladimir Putin, who acknowledged at his first press conference on the crisis that – while still legally president – Yanukovych had no political future.

7. With Yanukovych gone, Moscow disinclined to fight his cause and no law enforcement evident on the streets of Kiev

Authority — such as it was — passed to the leaders of the Opposition and the rump of the Ukrainian Parliament. They cobbled together an interim government, which was a better result than anyone had a right to expect. But on 23 February they spoilt it all with the choice of their first legislative act: the repeal of the law that enshrined Russian as Ukraine’s official second language.

8. The legislation was rejected five days later by interim President Oleksandr Turchynov

Although it had only ever been a symbolic trophy for Ukrainian nationalists, Russian-speakers (and Russia) saw it as a threat of things to come. Ukraine’s Russian-speakers could have decided to wait and see. But this is not what happened in Crimea, where the Russian majority feared losing their autonomy and Russia feared the loss of its – legally leased – naval base at Sevastopol. On 6 March, Crimean legislators voted for independence and agreed to fast-track and reword a planned referendum, turn it into an endorsement for reunification with Russia. Had the original referendum timetable and question been kept, what happened next would not have happened.

9. Both Kiev and the West recognised that there was no preventing the new referendum

This duly took place on 16 March. There was, though, a choice for Russia about what happened next. Putin could have delayed a response until after presidential elections in Ukraine. He could approved a pseudo-independence for Crimea, on the model of the pro-Russian enclaves in Georgia. Whether because Russian domestic public opinion was by now so fired up or because he saw a historic opportunity, Putin agreed the very next day to annexation.

10. The dilemma for the West, and for Kiev, was whether to fight to keep Crimea within Ukraine

They chose not to, while imposing limited sanctions and huffing and puffing about illegality.

There are more searching questions, of course. One fork in the road that Ukraine may be tempted to revisit is Kiev’s decision, after independence, to dispense with its Soviet-era nuclear weapons. It did so in return for international guarantees of sovereignty (the Budapest Memorandum of 1994). We now know what those guarantees were worth.

But the events of the past six months might also cause the West to take a new look at a crucial decision of its own from that era. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the US and its allies had a choice of whether to declare victory, dismantle their military alliance and proclaim a new order, or to maintain the security structures of before. The states that had lived under Soviet domination, such as the Baltics, pleaded for the old structures to be kept and for the chance to join. That judgement might now appear vindicated.

But what if the West had chosen instead to dissolve Nato and negotiate new European security arrangements? For future historians, the preservation of an outdated alliance — which is now looking forward to a thoroughly unexpected revival of its fortunes — may be judged the most fateful choice of all.

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Show comments
  • komment

    The great Scottish philosopher Robert Burns once wrote ‘facts are chiels that winna ding.’ He must have had articles like this in mind when he put pen to paper.
    The worst truth is half a truth because it is half a lie, and this article lies by ommission. No mention is made of the vast sums of money spent by the US State Department in facilitating regime change in Ukraine. This admission by Victoria Nuland is on record you just need to look it up.
    The US , with its preference for duplicity over diplomacy, has turned hypocricy into an art form and surrounds itself with yesterdays failed colonial powers none of which dares say the kingg has no clothes, if they did where else could they make themselves appear important. Hollow vessels make the loudest noise.
    History will judge VladimirvPutin more kindly than the imposter who holds the Nobel Prize for Peace.

  • Denis_Cooper

    There’s the EU, which has wide-ranging territorial ambitions but at present still lacks the military muscle to ensure the defence of the new territories it acquires.

    Then there’s NATO, which willingly provides the military muscle that the EU still lacks, and the intimacy of the link between the two is revealed when Eurocorps describes itself as “A Force for NATO and the European Union”.

    And so then there is the US, which provides most of the military muscle to NATO and not only supports the territorial ambitions of the EU but apparently still harbours a Cold War desire to finish off Russia for good.

    I refer to this combination as the “EU/NATO/US troika”, because the three of them are all in close harness side by side pulling in the same direction.

    And for a long time one planned direction of travel has been around and across the Black Sea and across the Caucasus to the Caspian Sea, and then across the Caspian Sea to Central Asia; here is a handy map showing that once Cameron had achieved his stated, insane, objective of the EU stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals it would not just be a case of Russia being encircled to the south it would be
    Russia split into two along the line of the Urals and the greatly enlarged EU, for which also read the UK, having borders with Iraq and Iran and China and nearly with Mongolia, and no doubt later with Afghanistan:

    And of course the British people would never be asked directly whether they wanted any of this to happen, because when he wrote his “referendum lock” law Hague deliberately exempted all treaties for the accession of new countries to the EU.

  • Bonkim

    Good luck to the Crimeans within Russia – look ahead not behind. The EU was barking up the wrong tree and fomenting trouble where it was not wanted.

    Imagine our reaction if the EU poked its nose in the Scottish referendum.

  • Baron

    Mary, quite well argued and quite objective take on things there except for one thing: Those in the know are certain who the snipers were (the hint: no MSM in the West has mentioned the call), and this is the key. It was the mother of all blunders to back the Full Monty of naked violence, go for a regime change because Putin has always been eager to get hold of Crimea (which nation would be happy having her fleet based in another country), and this was a 24-carat chance for him to do just that, and look good into the bargain. Madness, this.

  • solly gratia

    That’s a start Mary, thank you. Can we have a follow up article on the forks in the road that got us here, from the time of fall of the Berlin Wall? It will be good to reference this when talking to people.

  • Curnonsky

    Amazing, isn’t it, that Putin was able to infiltrate FSB and Interior Ministry forces into Crimea and to then execute a well-organized takeover of government offices, military bases and financial institutions with scarcely a shot fired – all at the spur of the moment, in response to the evil machinations of the EU?

    Come off it. Putin had a plan in hand for just such an opening. He read (correctly) the EU and US leaders as blustering fools and he moved when he had the opportunity and the pretext. He will move again when he has the chance.

    And the author suggests that NATO should have been disbanded at the end of the Cold War – why bother, when it has spent the last 20 years disarming unilaterally? When the US loudly trumpeted “reset” after Russia had invaded Georgia, cancelled the missile defense system for Poland, caved on Syria, allowed Russia to cheat on START – this is provocative, threatening expansionism? Has it not struck anyone that the nations with direct experience with Russian rule (including Ukraine) were the most determined to join NATO and resist Putin?

    • Baron

      When will you get into your skull, Curnonsky, that both Russia and the former USSR satellite countries are passing through a transitional phase, they cannot have any better leadership because most of those in power were one way or another active in the communist regime. Until these people die out, new generation takes over, what we have it just about what we can have. Whatever you or anyone else says there’s opposition in Russia, the freedom to criticise exists albeit with limits. But then show me a country that allows 100% free expression.

      The Russians have never had it so good since the oprichnina in the 16th century, and that’s a fact. Our harping at Putin is more likely to turn the regime further back, and the unwashed will back him, willingly.

      • Curnonsky

        No, what we are seeing is the steady collapse of the cozy post-war world of European integration, disarmament, hybrid socialist/capitalistic economics and post-nationalism. As it turns out power politics, national identity and economic reality are eternal and institutions like the EU and NATO transitory. Putin is simply the current change agent, but don’t think that Alex Navalny would be any less aggressive in pursuing Russian interests.

        And personally I’d prefer pre-WWI Russia to today’s version.

  • swatnan

    I’ll have fourcandles please.
    If Putin had any sense, he’d put that corrupt Yanacovych under house arrest; he’s yesterdays man with not an iota of a chance of returning to his private zoo.

    • Baron

      You obviously have no idea of what he is capable of, swatnam.

  • Vernon Goddard

    But, Gareth, the peoples of Crimea did choose to become part of the Russian Federation.

    • telemachus

      To return to the motherland

    • Tom Tom

      He seemingly doesn’t care, but I grew up in an ea when people were less gung-ho about the prospect of thermonuclear war and did not provoke conflict with such gusto……..Thatcher defended The Falklands and it was not even in our hemisphere let alone a vital warm water port and oil export terminal

  • Gareth Wallace

    Wow, where did an aggressive and perhaps unhinged Russian leadership which takes no prisoners and accepts no dissent get a look in? Instead the whole mess is the EU Nato and the West’s fault? I have travelled through Russia, the Ukraine Moldova and Romania. Russian is proud and nationalistic but is poor and treats it’s citizens badly. Remember the pre Olympic Games Homophobia? The steadily degraded freedom of speech in Mother Russia? Given the choice of Western / EU values and progress verses Russian nostalgia I think most people would choose the former. Don’t forget for years the so called Warsaw Pact nations from East Germany to Poland where ranged against UK forces in Berlin and Germany. Could we even imagine war with Poland or Angela Merkel’s kin now? The West won the Cold War. The Soviet lost it. They are still losing it despite the sour grapes bullying from Putin and the excuses and understanding of hurt Russian feelings from fellow travellers and shills on the west’s leftie express.

    • Tom Tom

      Gorbachev unravelled the Warsaw Pact without a Tienanmen or a Poland 1963 or a Hungary 1956. The West won nothing….it violated every agreement made with Gorbachev because the USA wanted a NATO overlay over the EU to control Europe. It built bases across Central Europe and a huge one in Kosovo, it became the first power to put weapons on the Russian border since the Wehrmacht in 1941

      • Vernon Goddard

        The US have threatened stability where ever they have intervened or interfered……..

      • S&A

        ‘The West won nothing….it violated every agreement made with Gorbachev because the USA wanted a NATO overlay over the EU to control Europe’.

        (1) There was no such agreement made with Gorbachev.

        (2) The USA and other established NATO powers tried to fob the ex-Warsaw Pact states with ‘Partnership for Peace’ in the early 1990s. They didn’t actually want to extend the alliance Eastwards.

        (3) It was the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians et al who wanted to join NATO. This is what we in the real world call ‘self-determination’.

    • solly gratia

      “Remember the pre Olympic Games Homophobia?”
      That statement alone reveals you haven’t a clue, and choose to believe the media portrayal of Russia, with its alleged ‘ban’ on homosexuality which was no such thing.