The situation in Crimea is getting more dramatic by the hour. Russian President Vladimir Putin has sent troops to the peninsula. Ukraine expert Andreas Umland tells DW that separatists are gaining ground.
DW: The upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council, has approved military intervention on the Crimean peninsula. Why is the conflict there coming to a head right now?
Andreas Umland: Crimea is surely the part of Ukraine that is most accessible for Russia. There is a Russian majority on the Crimean peninsula: Almost 60 percent of the population of Crimea is ethnic Russian. Ukraine wants to leave the Russian orbit, so the Kremlin wants to compensate this failure by including the Crimean peninsula in its list of protectorates.
So Russia wants to once again enlarge its area of influence?
Two years ago, Vladimir Putin introduced the idea of a so-called Eurasian Union. Ukraine was supposed to be part of this geopolitical project, which is supposed to constitute a kind of Russian version of the European Union. But with the recent events in Kyiv, it has turned out that Ukraine won't participate in Putin's project.
Supposedly, there is a passage in the Russian constitution that says that fellow countrymen have to be supported. Is this passage used as a rationale?
It's the justification for this entire operation: the ethnic Russians on the Crimean peninsula are allegedly in danger. That is put forward, even though Crimea already holds a special status in the Ukrainian state. It's the only autonomous republic in Ukraine. Russians in Crimea can fully take advantage of their rights. Now, the specter of an ultra-nationalist and even fascist takeover by Kyiv is being painted on the wall by Moscow giving Russia an excuse to move in to protect the ethnic Russians.
How does the population perceive the approach?
The majority on the Crimean peninsula is ethnically Russian: in surveys, there has always been a lot of support for an annexation of Crimea by Russia. But there is an important minority: the Crimean Tatars, who have made clear repeatedly that they want to remain in the Ukrainian state. So there are different interests and conflict potential on the Crimean peninsula. Until now, however, this has never been a problem; the development of Crimea was surprisingly peaceful in the past 25 years. The situation escalated only last week.
Is this situation of upheaval being exploited for secession?
Moscow is obviously encouraging the separatist groups, which have always existed on the Crimean peninsula, to spring into action now. That has to do with Ukraine's stepping back from the Eurasian Union project. Putin is under pressure because the Russian mass media have portrayed the upheaval in Ukraine over the last three months as a terrorist, ultra-national, extremist coup d'etat.. Now, the Kremlin has to follow through on that fantasy and find something to oppose the events in Kyiv. That's what the Russian population expects after having been agitated by the media for weeks.
What consequences could a Russian military intervention on the Crimean peninsula have?
Russia is militarily superior by far. Basically, it's not necessary at all for Russia to use large troop deployments. It's mostly about the political support and Russia's offer to protect the separatists.
If the current events continue in the same vein, there will be a de facto secession of the Crimean peninsula from the Ukrainian state. A referendum on the status of Crimea is to be held on March 30. That's apparently about creating a relationship between Crimea and Ukraine on the basis of a confederation. If Crimea actually secedes from Ukraine, that would be a considerable break from the post-Cold War European security architecture.
What is the probability of the secession of Crimea?
By now, I consider it relatively likely. It's hard to tell what it will look like in terms of international law: whether Crimea will continue to formally be a part of Ukraine, or exist as an independent state or actually become part of the Russian Federation.
Has the new Ukrainian government made mistakes and thus fueled the conflict on the Crimean peninsula?
The main problem is that the Russian population in Russia as well as the Russian population on the Crimean peninsula has been agitated against the protesters on the Maidan by Russian state television over the last few months. On state television, the events have been portrayed as a fascist overthrow orchestrated by the West. That's why fears are arising now, in Russia as well as in Crimea.
Andreas Umland studied Central and Eastern European history. He is the publisher of the "Forum for Eastern European Idea- and Contemporary History" and is currently working for the German Academic Exchange Service in Kyiv.
The interview was conducted by Stephanie Höppner.