HOT ON THE HEELS of a “referendum” in Crimea — showing 97% of voters wanted to become part of Russia, with Vladimir Putin seemingly ready to oblige — ominous portents continue to appear around the worsening crisis on Europe’s eastern flank; the United Kingdom warns of “a new Cold War” if Russia attempts to annexe the Crimean peninsula, while a state-sanctioned Russian TV network has made a thinly veiled nuclear threat against the West.
The problem with games of brinkmanship is that they can escalate beyond control, and whilst I still think the most likely outcome of events unfolding in Ukraine will be some kind of accommodation that de-escalates rocketing tensions between Russia and the West, those nominally in control of proceedings certainly aren’t showing signs of moving in that direction just yet.
Most readers will know that the hastily convened referendum in Crimea at the weekend — providing voters with a choice of either joining Russia or reverting to a more autonomous, 1992-era constitutional arrangement as a semi-independent province of Ukraine — resolved, with nearly 97% of the vote, to amalgamate with Russia.
“No change, quite literally, was not an option on offer.
In the days since, the West — led in this case by Britain and its Foreign minister, William Hague — has vowed not to recognise the referendum result.
Indeed, Hague has warned that Russia faces “a new Cold War” if it moves to formally annexe the Crimea, with the EU suggesting that Russia faces “a ‘far-reaching’ economic blockade.”
For good measure, the EU has drawn up a list of Russian MPs, government officials and business people who will be subjected to travel bans: a move likely to have absolutely no impact.
All of this comes as the interim government in Ukraine readies to call up 40,000 reserve troops in readiness for war with Russia, a prospective contest likely to prove futile for Ukraine to even participate in should it eventuate.
It comes as reports are circulating today in the European press that Moldova is the next ex-Soviet satellite on Putin’s radar as he apparently sets about implementing his plan to “recreate” the USSR and restore it to is allegedly rightful place as a world superpower, with Romania on the list after that.
And it comes as a Russian television journalist — hand-picked by Putin as a state-sanctioned mouthpiece for the Russian government — has suggested that Russia is capable of turning the USA “into radioactive ash,” in a news report featuring a large nuclear mushroom cloud as its backdrop.
Whilst the proposition might seem far-fetched, the fact a propaganda stooge has been the one to raise it certainly indicates Putin is in no mood to cool the temperature of rapidly worsening relations between his country and the West.
My sense remains that there will be some kind of accommodation of Russia; perhaps tolerating its “annexation” of the Crimea on the basis that its majority Russian population and historical status as part of Russia before 1954 make the change something the West can grudgingly live with.
Any move by Russia to repeat the Ukraine episode in Moldova — or beyond, for that matter — might be a different story.
On one level, the West (and the EU and NATO in particular) can do little to stop Crimea rejoining Russia without risking military conflict with Russia, the consequences of which could be dire: and by dire, the demonstration on Russian television I have mentioned is the kind of thing such a war could easily escalate into, and represents a scenario too terrible to contemplate.
Yet at some point — should he pursue territorial claims beyond the Crimean peninsula or, at the very least, those ex-Soviet countries that are not NATO member states — the West will have no choice but to intervene to stop Putin from re-establishing the Iron Curtain across Europe.
The whole neo-imperialist adventure that Putin seems to have embarked upon all adds up to a ticket to somewhere that is potentially very unpleasant indeed. It is to be hoped that some way of sabotaging the campaign bus can be found and enacted before it is able to continue much further along that destructive path.