Regret suffuses the post mortem on many a conflict, with hindsight recommending alternatives that were far less obvious at the time. Crimea is different. Rarely can the fateful choices — those critical forks in the road — have been so evident as those that have led Russia, Ukraine and the West into this conflict.
A different choice at any one of these 10 junctures could have averted immediate danger and indicated a route back to safety:
1. Last summer it became apparent that Russia and the EU were increasingly at loggerheads over Ukraine
It was Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Union vs the association agreement on offer from Brussels. As November drew closer, the EU – in part, perhaps, because hawkish Lithuania held the presidency — treated Ukraine’s decision as a now or never choice between East and West, even though Ukraine’s disunity, and discomfort, were clear for all to see. The option was there to defer any signing or to explore – as the European elder statesman, Romano Prodi, among others, suggested – some interim arrangement. That was rejected by the EU.
2. At the Vilnius summit, Ukraine’s President Yanukovych said No to the Europe deal
A few days later he said Yes to a – very necessary – bail-out from Russia. If Brussels had offered real money, as Moscow did, he might have said Yes and we do not know what would have happened next. What did happen is that Brussels raged as though Ukraine was lost to the West forever and thousands of protesters descended on to the streets of Kiev, bolstering one of the more surprising developments of the recent past: an impassioned pro-EU demonstration.
3. As huge EU flags fluttered over the streets, Yanukovych was confronted with the choice all beleaguered governments must make
He could offer solid concessions, such as bringing forward the presidential election by a year, to early 2014, and serious consultations on reforms, but he did not. Piqued when his first proposals for a unity government were rejected, he resorted instead to the tool of panicked governments everywhere. On 17 January, he signed legislation against protests in central Kiev and called in the riot police to crack heads.
4. The protesters, many of them young, then had a choice about whether to go home or stay and fight
Infuriated and emboldened by the repressive new laws and evidence of EU support for their cause, they stayed and turned their ire on the ruling elite. What had been a protest against one policy – Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU association agreement – became a protest against everything he stood for in their eyes, starting with rampant corruption and failing government. Violence escalates through mid-February.
5. At this point, the EU could have left the President and the protesters to fight it out
Instead, it sent a delegation, comprising the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland, to mediate between Yanukovych and the opposition. Russia also sent an envoy – the moderate, Vladimir Lukin. An agreement was hammered out, which was underwritten by the EU envoys and tacitly supported, so it seemed, by Moscow. The ball was now in the court of the protesters and the Ukrainian parliament. On 22 February, the day after it was signed, opposition leaders backed the deal, which included early elections and in the interim an emasculation of Yanukovych’s power, but they could not make it stick either on the Maidan or in Parliament. The scene was set for new confrontation.
6. Instead of backing the EU-sponsored agreement, Parliament voted to remove Yanukovych
He was indicted for the protesters’ deaths and subsequently fled. It is still not known who the snipers were who opened fire in Kiev on 21 February, and there were casualties among the police, too. But the deaths had served to discredit his leadership; in the eyes of many, he had forfeited any democratic legitimacy he might have had. His flight infuriated his reluctant patron, Vladimir Putin, who acknowledged at his first press conference on the crisis that – while still legally president – Yanukovych had no political future.
7. With Yanukovych gone, Moscow disinclined to fight his cause and no law enforcement evident on the streets of Kiev
Authority — such as it was — passed to the leaders of the Opposition and the rump of the Ukrainian Parliament. They cobbled together an interim government, which was a better result than anyone had a right to expect. But on 23 February they spoilt it all with the choice of their first legislative act: the repeal of the law that enshrined Russian as Ukraine’s official second language.
8. The legislation was rejected five days later by interim President Oleksandr Turchynov
Although it had only ever been a symbolic trophy for Ukrainian nationalists, Russian-speakers (and Russia) saw it as a threat of things to come. Ukraine’s Russian-speakers could have decided to wait and see. But this is not what happened in Crimea, where the Russian majority feared losing their autonomy and Russia feared the loss of its – legally leased – naval base at Sevastopol. On 6 March, Crimean legislators voted for independence and agreed to fast-track and reword a planned referendum, turn it into an endorsement for reunification with Russia. Had the original referendum timetable and question been kept, what happened next would not have happened.
9. Both Kiev and the West recognised that there was no preventing the new referendum
This duly took place on 16 March. There was, though, a choice for Russia about what happened next. Putin could have delayed a response until after presidential elections in Ukraine. He could approved a pseudo-independence for Crimea, on the model of the pro-Russian enclaves in Georgia. Whether because Russian domestic public opinion was by now so fired up or because he saw a historic opportunity, Putin agreed the very next day to annexation.
10. The dilemma for the West, and for Kiev, was whether to fight to keep Crimea within Ukraine
They chose not to, while imposing limited sanctions and huffing and puffing about illegality.
There are more searching questions, of course. One fork in the road that Ukraine may be tempted to revisit is Kiev’s decision, after independence, to dispense with its Soviet-era nuclear weapons. It did so in return for international guarantees of sovereignty (the Budapest Memorandum of 1994). We now know what those guarantees were worth.
But the events of the past six months might also cause the West to take a new look at a crucial decision of its own from that era. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the US and its allies had a choice of whether to declare victory, dismantle their military alliance and proclaim a new order, or to maintain the security structures of before. The states that had lived under Soviet domination, such as the Baltics, pleaded for the old structures to be kept and for the chance to join. That judgement might now appear vindicated.
But what if the West had chosen instead to dissolve Nato and negotiate new European security arrangements? For future historians, the preservation of an outdated alliance — which is now looking forward to a thoroughly unexpected revival of its fortunes — may be judged the most fateful choice of all.