The Russian media covers the situation in Crimea as if Russia is ready to incorporate the peninsula, evacuate all Russians, or even send in its troops tomorrow. Behind the imperial propaganda is nothing, neither political nor economic capabilities nor a desire to be an empire.
State TV channels clearly depict the power in Ukraine as having been seized by nationalists, the lives of Russian Crimeans as under threat, and Crimea as not part of Ukraine. It must be emphasized that it is not the Foreign Ministry or the presidential administration who assert this; rather, it comes from the State Duma and the jingoistic “experts.” At the same time, the party line is rather zigzag: no sooner had talk show panelists sneered at the wimp Yanukovych, than they had to recognize him as a legitimate president. The MPs also frequent Crimea, there to “familiarize themselves with the situation.”
The overall message of these not-quite-official speakers is that the compatriots are in trouble, and Russia will not turn its back on them. The Russian populations both in Crimea and in Russia welcome this message. Crimeans, like all Ukrainians, experience hardships, and some aid from the rich neighbor would have been handy. Many Crimeans recall the Soviet empire and see reunification of any kind as a return to the lost paradise. Russians en masse are not only exposed to TV propaganda, but also hold onto memories of a strong empire. These are the memories manipulated by the propagandists.
Modern Russia is not quite the same. The compatriots are welcomed here only with words. Russians from Central Asia can tell one a lot about how Mother Russia protects their rights.
Russia is unable to maintain its own subsidized regions, whose debt is rising rapidly even as incomes are falling. Ruble devaluation and economic recession are not conducive to maintaining a new, troublesome territory.
Russia tends to leave unresolved the territorial disputes it starts under the pretext of protecting the Russian-speaking population. The examples of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria bode ill for Crimea. It runs an extremely high risk of remaining an unrecognized diplomatic and economic zone. Even minimal formal participation of Russia in the conflict could lead to international isolation. The Russian stock market, reacting to the situation in Crimea, fell sharply due to fears of a repeat of the 2008 Georgian scenario.
However cynical it sounds, it is better for the Kremlin to use Crimea only to exert pressure on the new Ukrainian authorities, and to continue exploiting the region for propaganda purposes. Anything is better than shooting.
February, 28th, 2014
Translated by Marina Bulavina
Edited by Robin Rohrback and Jana Kubalova