International powers play poker over Crimea

The current geopolitical game involving Crimea is reminiscent of a chess game, but with elements of poker

Maria Dubovikova

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This week, the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, ratified the Crimea reunification treaty: 443 votes in favor vs. one vote against.

For Russia and Crimea, the referendum has corrected the huge mistake committed by Nikita Khrushchev when, in 1954, he transferred the Russian territory of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. This led to its loss due to the collapse of the USSR, regardless of the Crimean residents’ will. Populated by a Russian ethnic majority, which represent 1.5 million of the total population of 2.2 million, as well as by Ukrainians (about 350,000) and Crimean Tatars (about 290,000), these primarily Russian speaking ethnic groups have not changed their minds regarding loyalty to Russia.

It should be said that the Ukrainian governments have done nothing to build a united nation on its territory in 20 years of Ukrainian independence. The consequences of such short-sighted policy can be observed in the acts of Ukrainian neo-Nazis, who are playing a very specific role within the ranks of the current authorities in Kiev.

Tatars and Russia

However, it should be mentioned that Tatars had a grudge against Russia, as the USSR assignee, for the deportation of the whole ethnic group from the peninsula in 1944 after having been accused of collaboration with the fascists. But in his speech delivered on March 18, Vladimir Putin promised to “restore the Tatars in their rights and clear their good name.” Russia is doing it by way of an apology for the cruel methods of punishment used in Stalin’s USSR. Numerous ethnic groups suffered under Stalin, including Russians.

In this regard, Putin stated that there will be three national languages in Crimea: Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar, thus showing “respect for people of all ethnic groups in Crimea.” Furthermore, this is fixed in the treaties ratified by the Russian State Duma this week. However, the Tatar Mejlis recognized neither the Crimean referendum, nor the Crimean accession to Russia. This decision is not a surprise, taking into account the political affiliation of its leaders to the Kiev authorities and the collaboration with the leaders of Praviy Sector (the neo-Nazi front of Ukraine). But not all Tatars share the same radical views and aspirations of the Mejlis leaders, who are not even embarrassed in using threats as an instrument of pressure on ordinary Tatars. There are other Tatar associations, for example Sebat, that, being in opposition to Mejlis, stand strong on other principles of defending their minority rights through legitimate instruments, dialogue and respect. They have participated in the referendum.

The current geopolitical game is reminiscent of a chess game, but with elements of poker as each player hides some of their pieces up their sleeve

Maria Dubovikova

The Crimean people were able to run a fair referendum, in spite of the lack of time to prepare, and its results cannot be called into question as the aspirations of Crimean residents, who always had a historical attachment to Russia, were widely known even before the crisis. Crimea, especially the city of Sevastopol, is a symbol of Russian glory - a legendary place steeped in history, practically washed by the blood of thousands of Russian soldiers of different times; a fortress that was the birthplace of the Russian fleet. It has a great moral value for the Russian Federation and its people, as well as a great strategic one. The naval base in Sevastopol was always considered a strategic strength of the Russian presence in the Black Sea and it would be a great defeat for Russia if it looses it one day due to Kiev’s decision.

International law

National interests should not prevail upon international law, you could say that and you would be right. Western politicians, who criticize and refuse to recognize the Crimean referendum, declare that it violates the Constitution of Ukraine as well as international law. But we are missing two points in this case. First of all; politicians currently governing from Kiev came into power violating the constitution of the country in an army coup d’état. Wherever such a coup d’état takes place, it is unconstitutional. And secondly, the U.N. International Court declared on April 17, 2009, in connection with the hearing on a very controversial precedent, that “declarations of independence may, and often do, violate domestic legislation. However, this does not make them violations of international law.” Most experts predicted that this Kosovo-related precedent would open Pandora’s box.

Russia now uses the same instruments that were previously used. Russia is not cunning when it declares that the referendum and the demand of the Crimean government to join the Russian Federation do not violate international law, and even defends one of its principles - self-determination. Russia just plays the game following the rules set by other international actors.

By the way, the Crimean case would have not even taken place if the current government was not backed by ultra-nationalists, did not take the dangerously explosive decisions and did not make threatening statements. But what’s done is done.


Interestingly, Barak Obama called for the respect of principles of state integrity and noninterference in his speech this week, following the Russian State Duma vote. This shows not only hypocrisy, that is weighing heavy on modern international relations, but also a great problem with international law itself, which lets different actors interpret it as they want. The United States itself systematically violates these principles. Cases of Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and Libya will never be forgotten.

This year, we will see one more referendum for independence - in Scotland. And to be sure, it is just the beginning. This is a new trend: the return to the idea of a nation-state. And Crimea, as well as nationalists in the western part of Ukraine - who put the idea of the nation-state on the table - are somehow a part of this trend.

To sum up, the current geopolitical game is reminiscent of a chess game, but with elements of poker as each player hides some of their pieces up their sleeve. The rules of the game are invented on the fly and this does not bode well for international stability.


Maria Dubovikova is a co-founder of IMESClub (International Middle Eastern Studies Club), IMESClub Executive Director and member of the Club Council, author of several scientific articles and participant of several high level international conferences. She is a permanent member of the Think-tank under the American University in Moscow. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University) of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia) (honors diploma), she had been working for three months as a trainee at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in Paris. Now she is a PhD Candidate at MGIMO (Department of International Relations and Foreign Policy of Russia). Her research field is Russian foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, the policy of France and the US towards the Mediterranean, theory of international relations, humanitarian interventions and etc. Fluently speaks and writes in French and English. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme

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