The contrast could not have been clearer.
Just as Ukraine’s Defence Minister Igor Tenyukh boldly declared that Crimea “was, is and will be our territory,” Crimean officials were announcing plans to introduce the ruble, formally merge the territory with Russia and change the clocks to Moscow time. By late Monday afternoon, Crimea’s leaders had stripped all references to Ukraine from the government’s website and made it clear that Ukrainian institutions, assets and state agencies in the peninsula now belonged to the Republic of Crimea.
It highlighted the growing powerlessness of Kiev as Crimea moves ever closer to Russia, emboldened by the results of Sunday’s referendum which Crimean election officials said showed nearly 97-per-cent support for joining Russia. Ukraine, the United States, Canada and the European Union have condemned the referendum as illegitimate and introduced limited sanctions. But Russia has accepted the results and, on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree recognizing Crimea as a sovereign state, considered a prelude to annexation.
On Monday, Mr. Tenyukh and other Ukrainian cabinet ministers talked about mobilizing the army, calling up 40,000 reserves and suing Russia in international courts. The government ruled out using the one bit of leverage it has: cutting off food, water and gas supplies to the peninsula, arguing that would only hurt people it believes are still fellow countrymen. And it has no plans to evacuate Ukrainian soldiers trapped on bases in Crimea, who are surrounded by troops from Russia and Crimean self-defence forces, for fear of provoking a clash.
Analysts say there isn’t much else Kiev can do.
“I would say we have lost Crimea, probably for 10 years. Probably, we have lost it forever,” said Taras Berezovets, a political analyst who runs a Kiev-based think tank called Politech.
Mr. Berezovets said the Ukrainian government has to hope for some kind of diplomatic solution to the crisis at the international level. The sanctions introduced Monday by the U.S. and the EU will help, he said, noting that they are targeted at specific individuals who have a lot to lose.
“This is especially harmful for [Crimea’s leaders] because they have businesses in Europe,” he said.
He added that Ukraine also risks losing its hold on some Eastern regions unless it moves ahead with reforms including making Russian an official language and handing more power to regional governments. Otherwise, he warned, “these areas may follow the example of Crimea.”
Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a business and sociology professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said the conflict with Russia is only beginning. “This is just Stage 1 of a war that is going to last for another two to three weeks,” he said. “And when the end game in fact does come, there is going to be negotiation between the Western powers and Russia and hopefully Ukraine will have a little bit of a voice in that.”
University of Toronto political science professor Lucan Way also believes Crimea has been lost to Ukraine, but he isn’t convinced Russia will invade eastern Ukraine. That would be more difficult and costly because support for joining Russia is far lower there than in Crimea. However, he added: “In the 25 years that I have been studying Eastern Europe, I know it can always get worse.”
Many people in Kiev are convinced things will get worse and that Russian troops will extend their reach beyond Crimea. “For me, it is a war,” said Ivan Reshytniak as he sold coffee in Kiev from the back of a small truck. However, he believes Ukraine can prevail. “This is a really big strong state and a lot of people are supporting Ukraine. Russia can’t go against everyone alone.”
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