Ukraine Crisis Prevention: An Iranian Perspective

Monday, March 10, 2014

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

With the clock ticking fast toward the March 16th hastily-arranged referendum in Crimea on separating from Ukraine and joining Russia, a move welcomed by the Russian lawmakers, the Ukrainian crisis is now definitely spiraling toward a full-blown crisis, which can easily get out of hand if the current mediation efforts fail.

Some European leaders have lamented the absence of an international contact group to act as go-between and certainly this is a high priority that requires urgent attention by world leaders. The initial round of sanctions on Russia has already materialized in the form of visa restrictions and more sanctions will follow if Crimea joins Russia, even though the British officials appear to have drawn a line on Crimea, withholding meaningful sanctions as far as Russia has not moved into eastern Ukraine, in light of the substantial economic interdependence of Moscow and London; other European Union countries certainly feel the same restraints imposed by the weight of the enormous economic interests involved in maintaining a business as usual with Moscow, which is the main provider of energy export to the continent for the foreseeable future.

But, with the crisis assuming a geostrategic character trumping the purely economic logic, the annexation of Crimea may be a fait accompli, unless the Ukrainian government and its western backers agree to make serious, substantial, and long-term pledges to Russia: No NATO in Ukraine, guarantee of Russian access to Crimea, and protection of rights of Russian minority.  

Hypothetically, these Russian demands are within the realm of possible and, indeed, it is to Ukraine's own interest to accede to them, instead of witness a partition of Crimea followed by a "frozen conflict" with potentially devastating economic results. Even some leading Western voices, such as Henry Kissinger, have come out in favor of "Finlandization of Ukraine," which means "no NATO in Ukraine ever," to paraphrase the former US secretary of state. After all, historically Ukraine has served Russia as a convenient buffer and NATO's expansion after the recent regime change in Kiev, suspected of Western-engineered by Moscow, would have deleterious national security consequences for Russia, particularly since the far-right groups in control of Ukraine's army and security today have repeatedly called for discarding the recent agreement that extended the Russian Black Sea Force's access to Crimea until 2042. Clearly, that is unacceptable by Russia and something must give, otherwise Russia's resort to force to defend its vital military interests in the region will continue.

In terms of crisis-avoidance, the Ukrainian government, which has scheduled a national election on May 25th, can assuage the Russian fear by agreeing to adopt the terms of February 21 agreement brokered by EU on elections, thus raising hopes for a coalition government of national unity. This, together with pledges of keeping NATO out of Ukraine and respecting Russian access to its naval bases in Crimea, can go a long way in nipping this highly dangerous crisis in the bud.  After all, economically speaking, it is not in Russia's or Ukraine's interests to see the evaporation of their extensive relations, e.g. Russia is the main source of nuclear assistance for Ukraine's 16 nuclear reactors, not to mention Russia's dependence on Ukraine for energy export to Europe. Such mutually beneficial interests are now potentially jeopardized by the present crisis.

With respect to Crimea, it is noteworthy that even a pro-Russia plebiscite next week does not resolve the issue of Sevastopol, which is not part of the Crimean autonomous republic per the Ukrainian constitution, but rather a special administered city. Therefore, Moscow will still face the issue of legitimacy of its military takeover of the city in the aftermath of March 16th vote. This vote may trigger a similar separatist momentum in eastern Ukraine, an economic basket case, which Russia certainly does not want to inherit by any economic rationale. 

On the other hand, if this crisis drags on and relations between Russia and West sours further, Kiev may opt for closer NATO cooperation, in which case Russia might retaliate by moving into eastern Ukraine and thus causing the country's split in the middle. Much depends on US and NATO's strategy, which has been so far one of relentless expansion in eastern and central Europe, not to mention the stating of anti-missile system in Poland and Czech Republic considered a 'first strike' threat by Moscow, despite the official justification in terms of potential Iranian missile threat.  

With the prior deterioration of Russia-NATO dialogue since last year, the stage had been set for the current crisis, with the semi-armed "regime change" in Kiev acting as a catalyst for the qualitative turn for the worse presently witnessed before our eyes. Moscow's perception of the crisis, as a "preventive intervention," fuels their strategy, which cannot and should not be ignored by the West. A great deal more western sensitivity to Russia's national security concerns and worries is called for, which unfortunately has been markedly missing in the post-Soviet NATO strategy. A serious NATO reconsideration of its overtly anti-Russian policy is called for, and yet the alliance appears to be moving in the opposite direction, thus setting the stage for a highly dangerous crisis.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

Key Words: Ukraine Crisis Prevention, Iranian Perspective, Crimea Referendum, NATO, EU, US, Finlandization of Ukraine, Afrasiabi

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*Photo Credit: IR Diplomacy

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