After The Referendum

If, as seems to be generally expected, tomorrow’s referendum in Crimea produces a substantial majority in favour of union with the Russian Federation, what will Moscow’s reaction be?

I strongly expect that it will be……


There are several reason why I think this. One is that Moscow is reluctant to break up states. I know that that assertion will bring howls of laughter from the Russophobes who imagine that Putin has geography dreams every night but reflect that Russia only recognised the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after Georgia had actually attacked South Ossetia. The reason for recognition was to prevent other Georgian attacks. Behind that was the memory of the chaos caused in the Russian North Caucasus as an aftermath of Tbilisi’s attacks on South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the 1990s. Russia is a profoundly status quo country – largely because it fears change would lead to something worse – and will not move on such matters until it feels it has no other choice. We are not, I believe, quite at that point yet on Crimea let alone eastern Ukraine.

Moscow can afford to do nothing now because time is on its side. The more time passes, the more people in the West will learn who the new rulers of Kiev are (finally, the news has reached the USA: “It’s become popular to dismiss Russian President Vladimir Putin as paranoid and out of touch with reality. But his denunciation of ‘neofascist extremists’ within the movement that toppled the old Ukrainian government, and in the ranks of the new one, is worth heeding.” Sanctions cut both ways. Driving Russia and China (and the rest of the BRICS) together is not a triumph of “smart power”; especially if they decide that US securities are not, in fact, a reliable investment. The cost of supporting even the western rump of Ukraine is one that no one wants to pay. Militarily the mighty West can do little short of starting a nuclear war which would evenly-handedly destroy everyone. Western populations have lost their enthusiasm for glorious little wars for human rights. The propaganda line is not selling as well as it did in 2008 and one can see this reading the disbelieving comments on news items: see here, here, here, here for recent examples. China is clearing its throat. The more time passes, the more Western elder statesmen come out against the rhetoric – the most recent being Gerhard Schroeder and Helmut Kohl. The sniper phonecall intercept has now been bolstered by the testimony of the former chief of the Ukrainian Security Service. Because the story is still mostly on the Russian media, the Western MSM can continue to ignore it; but it may be too big in a week to ignore. For all these reasons, Moscow won’t lose anything by waiting a week or two or three.


Then there are the hollow threats. US Secretary of State Kerry is quoted as saying: “There will be a response of some kind to the referendum itself… If there is no sign [from Russia] of any capacity to respond to this issue … there will be a very serious series of steps on Monday.” But, typically, he is already backpeddling: “We hope President Putin will recognize that none of what we’re saying is meant as a threat, it’s not meant in a personal way. It is meant as a matter of respect for the international, multilateral structure that we have lived by since World War II, and for the standards of behavior about annexation, about succession, about independence, and how countries come about it.” Suppose, come Monday, Moscow says nothing at all. Then what? More threats unless Moscow stops doing nothing? The truly powerful never make threats; they make promises. There is simply no comparison between the competence and determination of Putin’s team and those on the American and EU side.

The fact is that Russia hasn’t actually done anything. It hasn’t “invaded” Crimea; why even the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff doesn’t have evidence they are Russian troops. It certainly hasn’t “annexed” Crimea. It hasn’t invaded eastern Ukraine or even threatened it. It has held some “long-scheduled” military exercises (one of which will probably come to a “long-scheduled” ending on Monday). It has issued statements (which are “promises” not “threats”) and refused to recognise the new regime in Kiev. It knows that the US/EU case is crumbling and losing support; it knows that to win, it need only do nothing and do it calmly and determinedly – a sort of zen judo.

If, on the other hand, tomorrow’s referendum produces a majority for staying in Ukraine, what will Moscow’s reaction be?

I strongly expect that it will be……


And the same for any other result.

Let the West fume and issue cheap threats, Moscow is in the stronger position.

The chickens light-heartedly thrown aloft by Washington and Brussels are coming home and no one can stop them from roosting.

In other words, if the Obama administration now finds itself in an awkward situation, having encouraged an anti-Russian revolution on Russia’s doorstep and now finding itself unable or unwilling, thankfully, to follow through, it is a problem entirely of its own making.

He [Schroeder] also claimed that the European Union appeared not to have ‘the remotest idea’ that the Ukraine was ‘culturally divided’ and had made mistakes from the outset in its attempts to reach an association agreement with the country.



  1. Crimea per capita GDP is lower than all of Russian federal subject except for Republic of Ingushetia

    if russia will manage to bring crimea standard of living to russian level i don’t think they will want to return to ukraine in the future in case they will be labeled as “controversial territory” or something like that which is good on the long run i guess even though russia will suffer from all of this saga in the near future

  2. A brave prediction, Patrick.

    I would say that #1 is almost certain (as in 99%+) to win out, and I also think it more likely or not (as in 50%+) that Moscow will recognize the results come Monday. A climbdown now will be too politically damaging/risky, and there have already been too many steps towards integrating Crimea with Russia for it all to be easily reversed.

  3. Eric Kraus says:

    Excellent post, but I think it very likely that Russia will integrate Crimea – in accordance with the wishes to be expressed by the Crimean people. They can hardly afford to leave them hanging in limbo.

  4. It is a brave prediction, but it could become true. I think we may yet see some Lavrov-jiu-jitsu: Russia will digest Crimea and after everyone is receiving Russian wages and pensions will say: “So you didn’t like the referendum? Why don’t you come here and run a referendum you like?”

  5. This is not going to be a referendum, an exercise like this is supposed to refer to the people as a whole, we know this will not happen, the pro Kiev voters will be hit, pushed and be in fear of their lives, as seen and reported, it’s not even legal from a world perspective. Mr Putin has got himself in the s*%t, not that he seems to be worried, It looks as though this is a knee jerk reaction because of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, has a deal to stay there until 2035. He doesn’t care about the Russian speakers in Crimea, because he cares not about the Russian people as a whole, he really is the dictionary definition of a Fascist, what he does now,I don’t know, everyone in the world will be the looser if he doesn’t back off. This, is of course, a good practice for what is going to happen in the Arctic, that fleet is being beefed up for a real incursion up there, he knows the “bomb” won’t be used, leave that to North Korea or the Mullahs, but he just may push it too far for ,conventional war to start, surely someone will depose the few warmongers at the top of the Kremlin before that happens.

  6. donnyess says:

    “The fact is that Russia hasn’t actually done anything”

    A million cool points if US / NATO intelligence winds-up getting trumped by a biker gang.

  7. If the parties to the Budapest memorandum don’t live up to their promises to guarantee the integrity of Ukraine, then what international treaty can anyone trust? Long term all of this will only convince states that are not willing to be vassals to Russia (or the US) to rearm themselves, those that can afford it. Quite a few countries in the world have the technical means to produce nuclear weapons, or funds enough to buy them from someone else.

  8. Mario: a memorandum is not a treaty. It was not ratified by Russia. I don’t think they are usually ratified, being a less formal and provisional document.

    The reality is that Ukraine was never in position to afford nuclear weapons. Probably it couldn’t afford to dismantle them either.

    But I agree with your main point, if a state can afford it it should have nuclear weapons. Otherwise it cannot be truly independent. Also, having a formal treaty with your neighbours always helps.

  9. I agree wholehartedly with Patrick’s analysis and conclusions. There’s so much hyperventilation that it is easy to get carried away with all sorts of dire predictions, but it is simply in nobodies interests that things get funky. Is it a mess? Sure? Do we need to throw all the toys out of the pram as a consequence? No. It’s time Russia and the West started a real dialogue rather than the pretense that has being going on for the last 20 years which consisted of Western promises (never backed by anything concrete) because the West has considered itself permanently in a position of superiority over Russia and only for Russia to compromise and agree. Much hubris from the West which needs to go through the five stages of grief. If they insist on making it really bad, then it will be. Or they can move on and deal with the real world (that would be the world that is not simply a synonym for the west).

    There’s still plenty to play for and mistakes by either side will be mercilessly exploited but for some sort of final agreement to have any meaning, I would recall Regan’s phrase “Trust, but verify”.

  10. David C Mace says:

    I don’t think this is correct
    (of course at this point, we’ll know shortly)
    In the case of the Crimea the Black Sea Fleet base being viable and not turning into a U$/Nato base has to be paramount

  11. Yakimenko’s comment about the US aiming to divide Russia and the EU is worth more consideration. The GNP of the 500 million people in the EU is about equal to the USA. Add 170 million from the EEU and 40 million from Ukraine with rather low GNP per capita but the means (human capital) to grow rapidly and the USA falls to third place in the world hierarchy permanently. It could have happened quickly too. This produces at least a 5 year delay. Barroso was amazingly incompetent. However, I still vote for the main engine of this fracas being the local oligarchs as Yakimenko mentioned, except I think that $13m from Pinchuk to the Clintons and similar funding elsewhere was the critical cash flow. The only news media that did a thorough job on them was CCTV in Mandarin with English subtitles. EU partner or Chinese mining site? The choice is deferred.

    From Tajikstan to Transdenistria there are conflicts frozen by Russian peacekeepers. The Post Soviet instabilities are still there and the UN should have something going on in the background to develop a long term solution. Hope is not huge. Zimbabwe is still a post imperial instability. Latin America didn’t settle down to democracy until recently.

  12. Not entirely “nothing” on Monday. A slightly enigmatic recognition of independence of Crimea. Then EU/USA idiotic pseudo-sanctions nonsense and more hardening of opinion in SE Ukraine.

  13. Ah well, another bold prediction thunders in. The problem here is that Putin doesn’t have much of a sense of humour — think of what good laughs he would have had and we would have enjoyed had he delayed a week or two while the simpletons in the West threatened, blundered and gassed away about things that weren’t happening.