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A man holds the Russian flag amid a large demonstration outside the regional government building in Donetsk, in the eastern Ukraine, March 9, 2014. The pro-Russian leader of Crimea's regional Parliament urged Ukraine Sunday to withdraw its roughly 3,500 troops stationed in the peninsula, as more Russian military units arrive there by the day. (URIEL SINAI/NYT)
A man holds the Russian flag amid a large demonstration outside the regional government building in Donetsk, in the eastern Ukraine, March 9, 2014. The pro-Russian leader of Crimea's regional Parliament urged Ukraine Sunday to withdraw its roughly 3,500 troops stationed in the peninsula, as more Russian military units arrive there by the day. (URIEL SINAI/NYT)

Christopher Westdal

Ukraine should let Crimea go. But Putin shouldn’t take it Add to ...

It is a fact hitherto obscure but now well known that in 1954, effecting an apparently inconsequential border shift within the Soviet Union, Premier Nikita Khrushchev signed Crimea over to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

It is alleged he was drunk. I doubt it. By turning Crimea, a peninsula vital forever to Russia’s security, into part of Ukraine, Mr. Khrushchev made Crimea a hook, an anchor to Russia for the whole vast land. Lviv’s a long way from Sevastopal.

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Sixty years on, ironically, the more Ukrainians insist on the preservation of the territorial integrity of their country, including the decidedly un-Ukrainian Crimea, the better Mr. Khrushchev’s gambit serves, the deeper sinks the hook.

My own view is that Ukrainians should ignore all the legal advice and be prepared to let Crimea go if need be. That crucial decision, though, is not looking like Ukraine’s to make. It will be made in Moscow, by Vladimir Putin, and will be played out through coming days of drama.

Were I a Russian advising President Putin, I’d make the case that the severance of Ukraine by the excision of Crimea would not serve Russia’s interest, even if Russia’s astonishingly bloodless run of recent military luck held, if no one fired, other than in the air, if a fraternal Slavic bloodbath were avoided, and the amputation were surgical. Even then.

Crimea would be back home in Russia, true, but with hook and anchor gone. The mainland Ukraine that remained, however dependent on Russia, might well be more hostile, more like Georgia, a new, much bigger, Slavic thorn in the side. For at least a spell, we’d be back to cold war, with all its heavy costs. Fretful Europeans might stiffen spines and hike defence spending. Poland and the Baltics would press the United States hard to beef up NATO’s guard. Germany, feeling its oats again, would be emboldened by purpose. China would be heartened, geo-strategically, by the new East-West rift.

Apart from the lease-secured Sevastopol base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Crimea would be quite a mixed blessing to receive. Sixty per cent of its people love Mother Russia, more or less – but forty per cent don’t, some decidedly, particularly the long-suffering Tatars, whom Stalin, recall, expelled and tormented. As well, it would cost a fortune to relieve the poor, arid peninsula’s natural dependence on the Ukrainian mainland for water, power and communications.

Why not instead, I’d ask the president, keep uncontested control and the Fleet’s base, but let Kiev keep Crimea officially, in name alone – a chronic migraine for a weak neighbour? Among other benefits, the 1994 Budapest security assurance given to Ukraine by Russia (and the United States and Britain), to secure its nuclear disarmament, would be respected and problematic precedents of secession and new borders in volatile regions would be avoided.

It looks today like Putin is taking no such advice. Instead, the stage appears to be getting set, elaborately, in Simferopol and Moscow, for Crimea’s annexation. The Kremlin is consolidating its control of the territory. Representatives from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe have been repulsed. The Crimean Parliament has voted to join Russia. A referendum next week would endorse the rupture. In Moscow, the Duma has laid out the welcome mat. Russian Tatars have been flown to Crimea to assure their Crimean brethren they’d be warmly welcomed in the Federation. Putin moves fast – and doesn’t miss a trick.

Despite all this, I’m still not sure his mind is settled. The fact that the stage has been set doesn’t mean the play has to proceed. It wouldn’t be the first time a referendum had been cancelled at the last minute – or the Duma’s legislation overlooked. So much of the action in Crimea and the region has been elaborately staged, masterfully, worthy of Sochi, with lyrics by Orwell and sudden plot twists as standard fare. The President may yet pivot, which he does well, and keep his promise, repeated but five days ago, that Ukraine would remain intact. Only Mr. Putin knows. We’ll all find out soon.

On the other hand, were I Ukrainian, advising President Arseniy Yatseniuk, I think I’d make the case that the country would be better off without Crimea, better off without its problems – and without its heavy hook. Ukraine without Crimea would still border Russia, of course, and would still have to eschew NATO, lest Moscow make use of its just-proven capacity to destabilize eastern regions and to make the economic and political life of the whole country miserable. Without Crimea, though, Ukrainians, protected by neutrality, would be freer to find their own way, to master more of their fate, to get on with their neighbours and their lives, to make them better, at last.

The Western world would howl about the precedent and the sanctity of international law, of course, but Kiev should not be shocked and awed by hypocrisy. Sudetenland shmudetenland. Recent evocations of Adolf Hitler are fatuous, lazy, ill-timed and deeply offensive not only to Vladimir Putin and the Russian people, whose staggering sacrifice broke the German Army, but as well to intelligence, to history and to the memory of the victims of the Nazis.

It looks, though, like Kiev isn’t taking my advice either. The new authorities, battered but proud, are damned if they’ll lose a square inch of Ukraine to the Kremlin. Canada and countless other Western voices are backing them up. They fear as well that eating would increase appetite, that Moscow would want more, like the the eastern regions of Donbas or Kharkiv, with no end. I appreciate these sentiments, but am far from sure they’ll serve Ukrainians well. Mr. Putin knows that the excision of mainland parts of Ukraine would risk a fraternal bloodbath, staining his legacy forever. He’s made the point that he could if he would, but he won’t. The last thing Russia needs is Slavic civil war.

Meanwhile, the Rada parliament in Kiev has recklessly reopened the prospect of NATO membership – and will not have it resolved before Putin makes his call on Crimea. Regardless, NATO membership must be ruled out. If Kiev doesn’t do so, Brussels will. As Henry Kissinger wrote Friday in the Washington Post, some form of Ukrainian neutrality, perhaps like Finland’s in the Cold War, will be essential to the resolution of this crisis.

Readers will have noted above that I’d commend Crimea to neither side. I’d advise Mr. Putin to leave it with Ukraine and advise Mr. Yatseniuk to be prepared to let Russia have it. These are close calls to be made in highly charged, changing and dangerous circumstances. They’re too tricky for me, a foreigner, far away.

Christopher Westdal was Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine from 1996 to 1998 and ambassador to Russia from 2003 to 2006.

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