The Crimea Referendum, Europe and a New World Order



Pascale Muller and Maria Wokurka look into what the future holds for Europe following the annexation of Crimea, and whether a return to the days of the Cold War is likely.

History is back. Following last week’s referendum Crimea has been annexed by Russia. Poring over the European media in the following week, was like entering a time machine. The constantly changing circumstances and the lack of information from inside Crimea made and make it hard to keep abreast of the situation.

“Russia and the West: Fearing the abyss” was the headline of the German conservative daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Meanwhile Russian state TV said Russia could turn the US into “radioactive ash”. While a few days ago the British newspaper The Guardian published an article with the headline “Crimea crisis: EU prepares for trade war with Russia”. The french newspaper Le Monde describes the annexation of Crimea as a “Trojan horse strategy”. Rhetoric like this and the increasing military activity of Russia and NATO bring up old memories. Are we heading towards a new Cold War?

Europe finds itself in the midst of an East-West struggle for control of the buffer state of Ukraine. Putin, who has referred to the Soviet Unions fall as the biggest catastrophe of the century, has taken this opportunity to reestablish a Russian sphere of influence. While Obama is convinced that “Putin is on the wrong side of history” the Russian president wants a new world order – a world order in which Russia is a regional hegemon, a great power. The annexation, various German analysts suspect, is Putin’s revenge for 1989. On the Russian side, this historical parallel led to crude analogies, with Putin comparing the annexation of Crimea with the German reunification. The President says that Russia, in contrast to other countries, entirely accepted and respected the will of the German nation. Now in turn the West needs to accept the “reunification of the entity” in Russia. “I am convinced that the Germans will support us in terms of our wish for an reunification”, Putin was quoted on the German TV channel MDR.

But 2014 is not a copy of 1989. “Between whom should there be a new Cold war? Russia is not a big enemy for the USA, since the USA is economically and military-wise much more powerful than Russia. The USA remains the biggest power in our world”, says Serhiy Vanahiy, a Ukrainian activist living in Austria. Even if the US hegemony remains, the great power treads cautiously by imposing sanctions on Russia but refraining from military action. According to Vanahiy the crucial question is how and if the West will continue to respond to Russia’s break of international contracts. “The biggest problem of the situation right now is that Russia violated the law of the Budapest Memorandum from the 5th of December 1994.” A fact that can no longer be ignored by the West without weakening their position.

The Budapest Memorandum entails three declarations by the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia, recognising the borders of Kazakhstan, Belarus and the Ukraine as fixed and respected their political and economic sovereignty. In return the three Eastern countries had to agree upon an abdication from nuclear weapons. Should there be a nuclear offensive the UN Security Council is allowed to immediately impose sanctions. With Russia’s unexpected and abrupt behaviour in Crimean affairs, this agreement is obsolete. No surprise, that Belarus immediately expressed deep concern and reached out to it’s NATO allies to ensure it’s safety.

Vanahiy says: “The US will lack credibility if they do not respond to this breach of agreement through Russia. Thereby diverse negotiations and agreements concerning an abdication of nuclear weapons with countries such as Iran, Libya and Syria could unhinge due to two reasons – on one hand there is perhaps not to count on sanctions in case of an agreement breach, on the other hand Russia’s holding of nuclear weapons might eventually render possible almost everything.” The impact of the events goes far beyond Ukraine, Russia or Crimea. After decades of cooperation some are not longer playing to the rules.

Within this frame the Crimea crisis marks the prelude of a strong and potentially armed conflict between East and West, and primarily a conflict between Europe and Russia. According to the German online newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, speaks of “a riot risk of an armed conflict” and elaborates that war might have returned to Europe. France’s minister of foreign affairs was therefore the first to declare Russia as no longer part of the G8 and Germany followed soon after.

NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, clearly condemned the annexation of Crimea. Moscow resides on a “risky way” Rasmussen said in Brussels. “Still Russia violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukraine. Therefore Russia pursues its apparent breach of international commitments.” European leaders see the Crimea crisis as the worst within the last decades. A proof that war or the potential danger of war is still present and not to be underestimated. In Schulz’ opinion it is the EU that has to demonstrate to Russia that it will not accept a crossing of Russia’s achieved border. On March 16 BBC News quoted the European Union saying in a statement that the vote was “illegal and illegitimate and its outcome will not be recognised.” Contrariwise a hardening conflict could bring great economic damage to Russia as well as the European Union – one reason the latter retains from blunt actions.

According to the political activist Vaynahiy the conflict across the Crimea crisis might eventually lead to a “Third World War”. His argument: “Once international agreements do not function any longer and ‘nobody’ observes the rules, we obviously face the signal that our current world system is weak.”

Vaynahiy points out that “the EU is completely aware of the dependence of Russia in terms of the energy sector and this dependence is dangerous.” That is why the EU seeks for alternative options as soon as possible. Germany gets about one third of their energy resources from Russia and exports machinery and cars, Italy owes as much as 28 percent of their energy resources to the Kremlin and France has a strong interest in continue to sell warships to Moscow. For Russia, in turn, the consequences are enormous, economic deprivations. 50% of Russia’s budget stem from gas and oil exports.

“If this income ceases to exist, Russia will face great economic losses. I believe that the Russian GDP won’t be the same in two or three years.”, says Vaynahiy. Russia has made a clear choice of ideology over economy, accepting economic damage. A strategy that was believed to be dead in the 21st century and a global convergence over the acceptance of capitalism. According to Vaynahiy, Russia seeks to prove his military power, especially towards the other Russian republics, such as Chechnya and Dagestan.

Disregarding power games and the international impact of the Crimea crisis ahead, Russia’s stronghold on the region and its population might be drastic. The East of Europe fears a wave of refugees from Ukraine seeking shelter from an eventual Russian invasion. Even if Putin keeps denying it, Russian forces at the East Ukrainian border are “very, very sizable and very, very ready”, says Gen. Philip Breedlov, supreme commander of Allied Forces in the New York Times. Meanwhile Bratislava is getting ready to provide shelter of an eventuality of 1,000 – 10,000 refugees from this region of Ukraine, according to the German TV channel Deutsche Welle. Their biggest fear is that Ukraine could vanish from the world map. Whether or not this scenario comes true, world order has been shaken leading us once again into an era of instability.

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