FOREIGN Secretary William Hague – a man not much given to the use of hyperbole – has described the current situation in Ukraine as the biggest crisis Europe has faced in the 21st century.
With Russian troops now controlling Crimea in the south-east of the country and the American missile destroyer USS Truxton arriving in the Black Sea, Hague’s analysis seems rock solid. But while the chaos in the former Soviet state is indeed the most troubling development on European soil since the turn of the millennium, it has all the hallmarks of a 20th century conflict; as if the clock has spun backwards to the days of the Cold War, or even beyond that.
European leaders have spoken about tough diplomatic measures against Russia, but president Vladimir Putin has so far seemed untroubled by the prospect of their disapproval. His determination to see the peninsula of Crimea, with the advantages its offshore gas fields offer the Russian economy, become part of Russia seems resolute.
And, cold hard cash aside, there remains a strong pro-Russian element in the Crimea. It was, after all, fierce disagreement over whether Ukraine should forge closer links with the European Union or Putin’s Russia which brought about the crisis in the first place.
While European measures to find a solution have so far reaped little success, the arrival of an American destroyer in the vicinity seems likely only to exacerbate the situation. This gunboat diplomacy surely misreads the temperature in the Ukraine and the temperament of the Russian president. The Americans have insisted that Truxton is merely participating in a long-planned exercise. If so, the timing of its arrival is beyond unfortunate.
Observers have turned to the 20th century to draw parallels with the actions that led to both world wars. That the crisis in Ukraine could be allowed to escalate with similar consequences is not unthinkable.
The only hope for a solution is through transparent democracy. On 16 March, the people of Crimea will be offered two choices in a referendum: they can either vote to become subjects of the Russian federation or for the restoration of the 1992 Crimean constitution, which would be a declaration of independence from Ukraine.
Crucially, this referendum doesn’t offer citizens the choice to remain with the status quo, with Crimea as an autonomous republic within Ukraine. Instead, the options on offer are either join with Russia or declare independence, then join with Russia.
The referendum has no credibility. The outcomes it promises are the stuff of stitch-up. We should be concerned that the people will be asked to make a decision while their homeland is effectively occupied by Russian forces. Putin may tell the world that his troops are there to protect, but that’s a line of spin that ran out the very minute Russian soldiers displayed their intention to protect by pointing their weapons in the direction of their Ukrainian counterparts.
It is entirely likely that a majority of the people of Crimea would choose to enter the Russian fold. We may think this troubling empire-building by Putin, but we would have no moral authority to express concern if such a transition took place democratically and in full view of the world.
Vladimir Putin is not a politician in the western mould. It is quite pointless to try appeal to him as we might one of the UK’s traditional allies. Instead, we should support the holding of a referendum in Crimea and agree to welcome its outcome, whatever that may be. But we should only do so if that vote is open, honest, and fair – and carried out without Russian soldiers prowling the streets.