Win Crimea and Pawn Siberia

Rein Taagepera, recipient of Skytte Prize 2008, is Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Tartu, and the University of California, Irvine, USA.

It is still unclear who the winners and losers are in the recent events near the Black Sea – and to what degree. But China is a clear winner. The Chinese-Russian trade agreement had been in the works for ten years. Both sides were asking for more than the other side was willing to cede. Now Vladimir Putin went to Beijing, and the treaty came about. Putin hesitated, but 10 minutes before leaving he did sign. For such a dramatic breakthrough right now, someone had to yield and give up on demands firmly held for 10 years. Someone must have felt unusually vulnerable and badly in need of a treaty. It wasn’t China.

A Chinese takeover in Eastern Siberia was in the cards, anyway. The geo-demographic reality consists of 140 million Russians far away and one billion Chinese nearby. For different reasons, both sides have desisted from estimating how many thousand Chinese already work in the Russian Far East. But it is evident that quite a few Chinese are willing to toil there for wages the Russians would reject. Eventually, these Chinese will take over much of commerce, as they have in Southeast Asia. Now Putin has been forced to speed up this inevitable course.


Graffiti in Novosibirsk, Eastern Siberia says: “We want to live, not to survive.” Some people in Eastern Ukraine supported rebellion in the hopes of higher wages and pensions from Russia. Image credit: @thedimka / Flickr Creative Commons.

Some people in Lugansk and Donetsk supported rebellion in the hopes of higher wages and pensions, as they are in Russia, compared to Ukraine. – See more at:

The details of the Chinese-Russian trade agreement have not been divulged. It’s in the interest of both sides to appear as a united front. But the agreement is bound to include terms Putin would not have signed on just a few months earlier. Who would build those agreed-upon gas lines? If it’s Russian enterprises and labor, those pipes would never be installed; they would just vanish. If the task is left to the Chinese, they would come and stay. This is the law of conservation of Gastarbeiters, as Germany found out 50 ago. But what was it that forced Putin to pawn Siberia? The following three evaluations are among the ones Putin most likely did not hear from his advisors in March 2014.

First: “If we seize Crimea, the US will send some infantry right up to our Baltic border.” It’s more likely he heard and believed that the US would not get involved in Estonia. Bad guess.

Second: “If we send our agents into Ukraine, their local supporters will be able to seize only Lugansk and Donetsk.” Putin rather heard and believed that seizure would extend all the way from Kharkiv to Odessa. Bad guess.

Third: “If we mess up our economic relations with the West, because of Crimea, we would have to balance it by buying China’s support, putting Siberia in hock.” It’s more likely he heard and believed that the West would be more scared of losing Russian gas than Russia would be of losing its gas dollars. He preferred to believe Western investors would not withdraw from Russia and that Russian capital would not begin to flee. How expensive this miscalculation will turn out, in Siberia in particular, remains to be seen.

If Putin had heard sober estimates from his advisors, he might have acted differently. But who would ever offer a strongman unpleasant scenarios?

Which outcomes have been positive, as viewed from Moscow? Crimea is in Putin’s pocket, and the entire Black Sea is within reach. No one will force Russia to leave Crimea – but also, no one has incentive to recognize the annexation legally, for the next 40 years. Witness the non-recognition of Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. As for financial burden Crimea imposes, the local administrations in Russia already feel the pinch. So does Abkhazia, where a sharp cut in Russian subsidies made the President flee and resign.

In continental Ukraine, the pro-Russian elements have seized power in cities throughout two oblasts. Yet, for a full month they have not been able to extend their reach. Russia had to withdraw its army from the Ukrainian border. Who or what imposed such a retreat? Never mind.

For a first time in a while, Ukraine has a President who enjoys wide support at both ends the country. Its defense capability has improved, but there is little need to actively attack the rebels. Reinforcing border defense and keeping the rebel centers surrounded would suffice. Some people in Lugansk and Donetsk supported rebellion in the hopes of higher wages and pensions, as they are in Russia, compared to Ukraine. But right now they receive neither. Soon people will demand the new power holders to restore economy to at least the pre-rebellion level. This will be the end of the story.

In sum, Putin has lost this year much more than he has gained. Has anyone else won, besides China?

Ukraine has emerged more united than ever. The loss of Crimea hurts, but also lost are the previous headaches Crimea caused. Corruption is mind-boggling in Ukraine, and the resulting bankruptcy looms. No outside force can save Ukraine, if it does not save itself. It’s just that the attempt to destroy Ukraine from the outside has failed.

The West, and the European Union in particular, have again shown themselves incapable to act. This is an odd kind of incapability. In the face of it, a nuclear-armed empire collapsed, a quarter-century ago.

The Estonian version of this article was published by Eesti Päevaleht on 3 June, 2014.

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