The conflict between Russia and Georgia in the summer of 2008 left South Ossetia and Abkhazia in limbo. Today, it is not unlikely that Crimea will be the next spot on Europe's map, deserving this label, writes Peter Van Elsuwege.

Peter Van Elsuwege is professor of EU law at Ghent University.

Many parallels can be drawn between the crisis in the Crimea and the conflict between Russia and Georgia in the summer of 2008. On both occasions, dissatisfaction with western policy decisions raised frustrations in Moscow. In 2008, the secession of Kosovo from Russia’s traditional ally Serbia, as well as the conclusions of the NATO Bucharest Summit welcoming the Euro-Atlantic membership aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine, provided the background for growing tensions between Russia and its partners in the West. Nowadays, the prospect of deep economic integration between Ukraine and the EU, and its consequences for the Russian-driven Eurasian integration project, resulted in significant political, economic and even military pressure. Just as in 2008, the territorial integrity of a post-Soviet republic is at stake. 

Nevertheless, there are also important differences. The 2008 Russian military intervention in South Ossetia and Abkhazia was a reaction to activities of the Georgian army desperately looking to restore order in the breakaway regions. Today, Russia’s interference in the Crimea is much more difficult to justify. There was only the unfortunate decision of the Ukrainian parliament to withdraw the recognition of Russian as a regional language (a revision which did not enter into force due to the veto of interim-President Turchnov) and a general fear that the newly established government will not respect the rights of the Russian population in Ukraine. However, there is no evidence at all that the evolutions in Kiev create a direct humanitarian threat to those people. As a result, there is no legal ground to deploy Russian forces, which explains why President Putin prefers to talk about the presence of ‘local self-defence units’ and consistently denies any Russian responsibility for the takeover of all strategic places in the area.

EU reaction

After the 2008 crisis in Georgia, the EU decided to suspend the negotiations of a new bilateral framework agreement with Russia. A few months later, the European Commission concluded that such a suspension was not in the Union’s self-interest and the negotiations resumed before the end of the year. In a reaction to the recent events in the Crimea, the negotiations on the same new agreement are frozen again. Moreover, the visa liberalisation process and the EU’s participation to the upcoming G8 meeting in Sochi are stalled. In addition to those relatively easy sanctions, more severe measures such as visa bans, the freezing of bank accounts, and even economic restrictions are in the pipeline if a further escalation of the conflict should materialise. In other words, there are signals that a return to the order of the day will not be as evident as after the Georgian-Russian war of 2008.

Next steps

Finally, the question arises what will happen next. The Parliament of the Crimea already voted for annexation with Russia, and it appears that the forthcoming referendum of 16 March 2014 will point in the same direction. Yet, a transfer of the Crimea to the Russian Federation is not evident. It would constitute an obvious infringement of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine, and the 1997 Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between the Russian Federation and Ukraine. Respect for each other’s territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders are essential elements of the agreements.

Accepting an infringement of those principles would upset the basic principles of the entire post-Cold War legal order. Moreover, an annexation of the Crimea would not be in Russia’s interest.

For Moscow, it seems much more interesting to keep de facto control in the Crimea without a formal integration in the Russian Federation. This is currently the situation in the Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as well as in the Moldovan breakaway region of Transnistria. In this context, it is noteworthy that in the latter region a referendum took place in September 2006.

Voters had the choice between integration with Moldova or, alternatively, independence with a view to future integration into the Russian Federation. An overwhelming majority (98 %) voted in favour of the second option. Despite numerous attempts to find a settlement for the Transnistria issue, there seems to be no solution to this ‘frozen conflict’. It does not seem illusory that the Crimea will be the next spot on the map of Europe deserving this label.