Russian President Vladimir Putin sought on Tuesday to squeeze maximum political leverage from his Crimean adventure by pointing the way to an escape route from conflict, while stressing that Moscow’s military power, so dramatically unleashed, remained a constant option if Russian interests were threatened.
As for what would constitute a threat, Putin made clear that definitions of such words would very much be at his discretion. He defined the military takeover of Crimea as a “humanitarian mission” to save all Ukrainians from mortal peril, although no such danger had been apparent to the great majority of Crimea residents at the time of the incursion.
As for the heavily armed, tightly coordinated groups who took over Crimea’s airports and ports at the start of the incursion — they were merely spontaneous “self-defense groups” who may have acquired their Russian-looking uniforms from local shops.
It was designed as a relaxed televised chat with a small group of invited journalists by a relaxed leader in full command of the situation. However, it became a rambling, often tetchy performance from Putin, who repeatedly scolded journalists for failing to understand him or for leaving their mobile phones on.
Amid the irritability and hectoring, there were some clear messages. First, Russia feels bound by no international legal constraints on its actions in Ukraine, least of all the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, by which Russia and Western states pledged to respect Ukrainian territorial integrity in return for Kiev’s surrender of its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal. Putin dispensed with that particular piece of paper in a couple of lines.
“If it’s a revolution, what does that mean? It’s hard not to agree that a new government is appearing in this country, just like in Russia after 1917,” Putin said. “We didn’t sign any documents with this government.”
That in turn brought up the burning question of whether the ambition of current military options ranged further than Crimea to the largely pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking industrial east, potentially slicing Ukraine in two. Putin clearly, very deliberately, left the option open.
“I want you to understand if we make this decision, we will make it to protect the people of Ukraine,” Putin said.
He shrugged off the threat of sanctions and poured scorn on Western countries who have criticized his actions, yet had themselves pursued legally dubious adventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
Did Russia’s invasion of Crimea not somewhat undermine Moscow’s positions on other global conflicts, in which it had nailed its colors to the mast of non-interference in the affairs of other states? Ukraine was different, Putin insisted.
“This is legitimate and corresponds with our interests of protecting people who are historically tied to us, who have cultural ties to us, who have economic ties... This is a humanitarian mission. We won’t dictate anything to anyone, but of course we won’t stand aside if people are threatened,” he said.
Putin’s new relativism over non-interference and inviolability of borders raised incidentally the prospect of a possible geopolitical trade-off. He drew a parallel between Crimea and Kosovo. Moscow has so far staunchly refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence from its ally, Serbia. On Tuesday, the president seemed to raise the possibility that he might accept Kosovo if the West accepted Crimean independence or annexation by Russia.