Eighteen months later, those supporting Russia’s Crimean annexation continue shrinking
Moscow’s Dwindling Partners in Crime
Eighteen months ago, Russia presented the greatest challenge the Westphalian order in Europe has seen since World War II. This base fact, this continued reality, appears understood. As such, while Russia can continue its Crimean occupation – with the Tatar repression attendant; with the disregard for international law apparent – as long as its militaristic muscle allows it, Russia will also continue as a near-pariah state, shunned among the developed world, targeted by those eager to plunder a wasting Russian economy. Grabbing Crimea wrought country-wide celebrations. The fallout wrought a quagmire that could well unseat Putin and his claque from power.
Still, it remains worth noting that Russia’s isolation is not absolute. While Russia remains nation non grata with regards to Crimea, while the developed world – the EU, the United States, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations – continue to help boxing Russia into rolling recession, Moscow maintains a handful of ties to states willing to support its moves in Crimea.
There are 13 nations in toto who have lent visible or visceral support to Moscow’s moves in Crimea. While these nations may not have de jure recognized Russia’s claims of annexation – the first such moves on the European land-mass in some seventy years – they have de facto lent support to Moscow’s hegemony through the peninsula. Much in the way a handful of nations, eyes enlarged by the promise of Russian financial aid, were willing to support the Moscow-enforced “independence” of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, so too are a handful of dictator-heavy states willing to back Russia’s challenge to the understood international order.
The easiest examination of those willing to prop Russia came in the 24 March 2014 non-binding United Nations resolution on Ukrainian sovereignty. Among the resolution’s text are calls “upon all States to desist and refrain from actions aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine”; language underscoring that Crimea’s “referendum,” which Russia cited as evidence of peninsula-wide support, has “no validity”; and recommendations that “all States, international organizations and specialized agencies [don’t] recognize” Russia’s claimed border shifts.
The vote on the resolution, broadly, came to illustrate the dearth of support Moscow found among the international community following its invasion of southern Ukraine. Russia predictably moved against the resolution, but one hundred nations voted in support of the resolution, with dozens more abstaining or absenting themselves from backing Russia in the vote.
Nonetheless, ten further nations saw fit to buck international writ and support Moscow’s claims. The list of those opposing the resolution reads as a run-down of the world’s foremost autocracies, with a handful of lackeys relying on Russian largesse tossed in. Those backing Russia in Crimea include: Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. An anti-American ferment ties these states; a strain of autocracy unites all of them in supporting Russia in Crimea. This is the camp Russia’s assembled in its support, from Caracas to Khartoum, from Robert Mugabe to Evo Morales.
In addition to the UN vote, three further states voiced support for the Crimean “referendum,” effectively recognizing Russian suzerainty over the peninsula. Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai claimed the referendum – despite a boycott from the Tatar population, and without veritable election monitors and or an option for retaining the status quo – represented the “free will” of Crimeans. In Kyrgyzstan, which has recently witnessed its most substantive surge in anti-American sentiment since its 2010 revolution, the foreign ministry noted that the “results of the referendum in Crimea reflect the views of the region’s absolute majority.” And Kazakhstan’s foreign ministry issued a note staking that the “referendum … [was] a free expression of [the] will” of Crimea.
Thirteen nations in total, coming to Moscow’s aid. These are the states Russia’s cobbled in its efforts at aggrandizement. These are the nations Russia’s found willing to flip the Westphalian, post-Cold War order. A league of autocrats, with a pair of additional nations dependent on Russia for economic sustenance. A roster of strong-men, client-states, or humanitarian disaster zones – and sometimes a combination of all three.
But even this dictatorial roll-call comes with qualifications. Instead of the full-throated support Moscow may have expected, the backing from these states has ended up somewhere between hedged and milquetoast.
Two nations – the two nations remaining as Russia’s closest nominal allies – help represent just how friable this support remains. Take Kazakhstan, for instance. While President Nursultan Nazarbayev appears to be the lone leader outside Moscow to refer to Ukraine’s EuroMaidan revolution as an “unconstitutional coup d’état” – comments quickly swatted down by Ukrainian officials – Nazarbayev soon back-tracked. The country’s foreign ministry eventually removed its aforementioned statement backing Crimea’s “referendum,” and Nazarbayev ended up terming the Crimean misadventures a dangerous precedent.
Astana’s pull-back, to those familiar with Kazakh-Russian relations, shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. Not only does Kazakhstan present fertile ground for a Crimean redux – Kazakhstan’s northern stretches remain majority ethnic-Russian, and continue as a common target of annexation by Russian nationalists on both sides of the border – but, just over a year ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that ethnic Kazakhs had never enjoyed statehood prior to 1991, implicitly recycling rhetoric used to justify the Ukrainian invasion. (In response, Kazakhstan promptly set in motion celebrations for the 550th anniversary of Kazakh statehood.) Nazarbayev has also hewed to rhetoric supporting Ukrainian integrity, such that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko – whose presidency is the result of the putative “coup” Nazarbayev once claimed – eventually cited Kazakhstan’s “strong and consistent support of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine.” As one Kazakh analyst intoned, if “previously Kazakhstan perceived Russia as a big brother that will come to help when needed, now that perception has changed. Kazakhstan is very skeptical. Events in Ukraine show you have to be prepared for anything.”
Likewise, Belarus has retreated from its early support for Russia’s claims of Crimean annexation. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko quickly qualified his country’s support for Moscow’s moves; while he said that “Crimea today is a part of Russia, and recognizing or not recognizing that fact changes nothing,” he also echoed Nazarbayev, noting that the move “sets a bad precedent.” In addition to swelling relations with his counterpart in Kyiv, to Moscow’s chagrin, Lukashenko soon ratcheted his rhetoric. In May 2014, Lukashenko upped his nationalist credentials, declaiming, “No matter who comes to Belarussian land, I will fight. Even if it is Putin.” And then, last October – reeling from the Russia-led Eurasian recession – Lukashenko slammed Moscow for its rationale. “Many say that Crimea was once unjustly given to Ukraine, that Crimea is a genuine Russian territory,” Lukashenko said. “It is an incorrect approach. Let’s take a look back at the time of … the Mongol-Tatar Yoke. We would have to give virtually [all of] Russia, Western Europe, and Eastern Europe to Kazakhstan, Mongolia or someone else. … There is no sense in going back to the past.”
Eighteen months on, even those who supported Russia’s efforts to upend the post-Cold War order are getting cold feet. Not only have Russia’s nominal allies substantially qualified their early support for the Crimean occupation, but, a year and a half later, there seems even less likelihood that Russia’s claims to Crimean administration will find success in the international arena. Forced border-shifts remain anathema to the developed world, and the continued international order. Russia’s challenge, while still heralded domestically, stands stale and frayed. All that’s left for Moscow are a handful of tin-pot dictators, shrinking client-states, and erstwhile allies scouring for other patrons. Russia’s security state may continue swamping Crimea, but any claims to rightful presence is finding fewer takers than ever before – a clear indicator of the support, or isolation, Moscow would receive should it continue any moves to cleave the Donbas, or should it seek to dissolve northern Kazakhstan or eastern Estonia in fits of ethnic violence. Eighteen months ago, the Kremlin saw the thievery of Crimea as something, in a sense, logical: majority ethnic Russian, a region once under the remit of Moscow; maybe the West wouldn’t condone the move, but the developing world would line behind Moscow. Now, it’s clear that even those most firmly in Moscow’s camp are far from the full-throated supporters Russia expected – and far less likely to support any expansionism moving forward.