Why worries about the Crimean crisis are overblown - English

The exaggerated crisis

By Rick Noack6.04.2014Global Policy

The Russian annexation of Crimea is certainly not the beginning of a new Cold War. The EU and the US should ignore Russian muscle-flexing and focus on other challenges.

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Using military force can be a sign of strength or of weakness. In the case of Crimea, the lines have become increasingly blurred. Particularly in the US and Europe, commentators have adapted the narrative of Russia’s return to Soviet ambitions. The Crimean crisis has provided think tanks and policy makers with a welcome argument against the current trend of diminishing military budgets and a stronger focus on economic and social reforms.

Among them are not only US Republicans but also politicians who have so far not been associated with military saber-rattling. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, for instance, called for stronger NATO backing in the Ukraine crisis. Her remark came just weeks after German President Joachim Gauck had urged more frequent deployments of German troops.

No model to implement

A more active involvement of Germany’s army and an increase in the defense budgets of many European countries would be a smart move. However, such policy changes are investments in a future in which Europe will need to take more international responsibility; they should not be seen as a means to deter Russia. If Europe decides to militarize the struggle over Ukraine, it will only play into Putin’s hands. Economic support for his adversaries and military inaction are the best means to fight a Russia still intoxicated by its apparent revival as a leading world power. It will soon wake up to the reality of the 21st century.

To understand why Putin’s Crimea strategy is doomed, it is necessary to go back to the beginning of the crisis. There have been numerous debates trying to explain why Putin decided to invade Crimea. In fact, after weeks of searching, very few rational reasons have been found that explain the annexation of a peninsula that heavily relies on mainland Ukraine and is virtually bankrupt. Crimea’s relevance to the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s army bases is among the more credible arguments but is nevertheless too weak to explain Putin’s dangerous decision.

Putin now faces the possibility of severe economic sanctions, a major decrease in international cooperation and an unstable Crimea itself. Efforts to draw comparisons to the Cold War have failed as well; there is neither a global military challenge nor a Russian ideology that could be exported elsewhere. The only model Moscow would currently be able to sell is the breach of international law – a law it nevertheless still invokes to justify its actions in Crimea as a protection of human rights.

The real motives

In reality, Crimea is most likely supposed to distract from Russia’s deteriorating economy, which was booming only a few years ago. Whereas real disposable incomes rose by 12 percent seven years ago, predictions show an increase of as little as 3 percent in 2014. Putin needed an enemy he could blame, and the crisis in Ukraine seemed like the ideal way to build a new rivalry with Western countries.

At first glance, Putin’s strategy has worked out: His popularity has risen in recent weeks and Russians seem to stand united behind a leader whom Angela Merkel described as “out of touch with reality”. Nevertheless, Angela Merkel and other Western leaders are now advised to remain silent, to refrain from any military actions and to help Ukraine’s new government economically. One role model for Ukraine could be Finland, which lost some of its territory to the Soviets in 1939 but accepted the unlawful losses. Finland united its minorities and majorities and was wise enough not to provoke neighboring Russia by joining NATO. Today, Finland is among the world’s wealthiest countries.

Meanwhile, the Crimean crisis will make Russia soon realize that military might may have been a way to dominate the 20th century, but it is not an appropriate strategy for the 21st. The military confrontation has already forced Germany to reconsider its reliance on the Russian oil exports on which Moscow’s economy is largely based. For Germany and the EU, finding an alternative will be more than just a short-term challenge with a long-term gain – but for Russia, it will be a catastrophe.

No new Cold War

If Putin fails to find an enemy who is willing to flex muscles with him and his economy is crumbling, it is a safe bet to predict the failure of his Crimean strategy. Of course Putin will blame the West for the economic demise of his country. But as history has shown before, the enthusiasm for war will soon vanish in Russia. It remains to be seen how Putin plans to fill the coming vacuum.

Like Putin, the EU will also need to solve major challenges in the future. A new Cold War over Crimea, however, is not among them.

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