Russian Expansionism; Vladimir Putin and The South Ossetia Referendum

[Opinion] Leonid Tibilov, the president of the self-declared republic of South Ossetia, recently announced his breakaway region has planned a Crimean-style referendum, to join with Russia.

In a move likely to further strain already Cold War-esque relations between Russia and the West, the self-declared republic of South Ossetia has announced its plans to hold a Crimean-style referendum, to join with Russia.

Leonid Tibilov, president of the Georgian breakaway nation, reportedly drew up plans for the Ossetian union with Russia, during a meeting with Vladislav Surkov, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest advisers.

Undoubtedly, the Ossetian referendum, if it goes further than the planning stage, is likely to cause mass international backlash – particularly towards Russia, given the already icy relations.

Comparisons will be made the situation in Ukraine, following the Crimean annexation, and Russia will be portrayed as the expansionist bully, rounding up and recapturing its former Soviet states.

However, to daub blame over Russia, for both the Crimean annexation and this referendum in South Ossetia, would be reckless and not considerate of the more intricate details of the situation.

In the acquisition of Crimea, Russia was blamed for bringing about violence, conflict and unrest through tyrannical expansionist goals. Nevertheless, the Crimean peninsula actually transitioned to Russia fairly smoothly.

There was a few weeks of minor violence, with the Ukrainian army and pro-Kiev groups clashing in major cities with the pro-Russian separatists, who contrary to what a lot of western media claimed, were mostly Ukrainian citizens. Since this early violence, Crimea has remained almost entirely calm, with very few incidents – and each one quickly resolved.

The reason for this relative calm; 65.2% of Crimean citizens actually identified as Russia, even more were ethnically Russian. The move to Russia was natural for them, and so there was far less opposition than made out.

Tatars, and Crimean Tatars, who numbered nearly 15%, were the biggest vocal objectors, due to past experiences under Russian rule. However, through communication and proposals – including some of autonomy – the Tatar populations have worked with the Russian government without violence.

Why then, the question has to be asked, is it that when the subject of Russia, and Ukraine, in the context of Crimea, does the Western world view the Russians as so evilly wrong?

Simple, a misunderstanding of information.

Western media likes to group situations, and collectively address problems. So, when violence broke out in eastern Ukraine – by pro-Russian separatists (still Ukrainians, just supporters of further Russian annexation) – after having seen the success of Crimea’s transition, the Kiev-based Ukrainian government responded in force.

Naturally, when threatened with force, the pro-Russian separatists fought back. This led to a major conflict in the east of Ukraine, entirely separate from Crimea in the south, and naturally the Western media sought the first, and easiest thing to blame; the Russian annexation in the same country.

Obviously, it cannot be denied the claims of Russian troops’ involvement in eastern Ukraine – the Kremlin saying they’re not there, evidence (some very detailed and interesting investigative journalism, too) suggesting wholeheartedly that they are – have had an impact, and put a target on Russia’s back, but in some regards, you can’t really blame their response.

Accusations of their involvement were presented well before the first proof of Russian involvement, confusion over the nationality of the mostly Ukrainian pro-Russian separatists, and the role played by some ex-Russian army veterans joining the fighting, since they had familial ties to the region.

Really, since the Kremlin was being blamed anyway, it is far from surprising that the government of Vladimir Putin purportedly sent active Russian military troops into the conflict.

If you’re being blamed anyway, and facing the sanctions, you might as well commit the act you’re being punished for. That is common human nature.

In summary, Crimea was easily and effectively annexed by Russia – because it wanted to be annexed by Russia. It was not violence, or Russian intervention that caused it to transition. The referendum they held, to vote on becoming a Russian entity; it was organised by the Crimean people, in the interest of the Crimean people.

All the conflict in the restive eastern Ukraine had little to nothing to do with Crimea, and yet they are grouped together due to the misinformation of Western media – seeking to project an image of aggression and violence onto Russia – and in South Ossetia, we run the risk of a similar situation.

The United States, and other Western powers, have interests – particularly in the natural gas and oil industries – in Georgia, so will support the Georgian government over that of the South Ossetian breakaway parliament.

Annexation of South Ossetia will almost certainly, and fairly unjustly, result in further sanctions on Russia from the West, and a greater breakdown in already frozen relations between the two superpowers.

Yet, it is hardly Russia’s fault that South Ossetia wishes to fully unite with a country it sees as a vital benefactor. A largely agricultural region, of some 50,000 people, South Ossetia is already heavily integrated into and dependant on Russia. It uses the Russian rouble, hosts a Russian military base and draws most of its budget from Moscow.

South Ossetia declared its independence from Georgia in 1990, resulting in a bloody conflict. There is a deep-rooted hatred towards Georgia in the region, and if the Georgian government can offload the region to another national power – therefore subsidising all payments and responsibility for the region – in Georgia’s case, it would surely be the more logical approach.

The South Ossetia referendum was theorised, and planned, by Tibilov in the best interests of his people; they want secession from the nation with which they fought a bloody war, and union with the nation that has provided for them ever since.

However, in South Ossetia, the question of independence or annexation of Russia comes to a stalemate when it is considered the pride of the Georgian government, and the situations around the nation. Concede to South Ossetia, and besides admitting defeat, it gives ideas of success to other autonomous regions in the area; Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia.

In conclusion, the Russian government and Vladimir Putin cannot necessarily be blamed for the expansionism of Russia – the referendums and annexations of these territories are simply the result of people seizing on an opportunity to join with the nation they feel a more positive connection.

The referendum in South Ossetia shouldn’t cause problems, Georgia would be better off letting the breakaway republic join Russia, and everyone would be in a more positive situation – without the need for violence, or international sanctions and interference.

However, I feel that this belief lives only in a perfect world, and I can unfortunately see not positive outcome, void of international intervention and unnecessary provocation, from the situation arising in South Ossetia.

Categories: Opinion

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