While the referendum in Crimea has had the result expected, that of a vote for Russia, it does not really solve the issue that caused the referendum, which was whether Ukraine would be part of the European Union, or remain within the Russian sphere of influence. However, it indicates that Russia has succeeded in guarding its primary interest of retaining its Black Sea access though the Crimean port of Sevastopol.

It is also worth noting that Russia has intervened saying it was upholding the right of national self-determination, which is something it has not supported in Kashmir, where it has backed the illegal occupation by India; an occupation which rests on denying this right, even though it has the backing of the international community as expressed in the UN Security Council resolutions. One major difference between the Crimean and Kashmiri cases is that the former did not even have a UN resolution backing this right to self-determination. In its case, Russia saw fit to reverse what was at the time an administrative decision over half a century old, the transfer of the Crimean peninsula from the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. At that time, there was no sign of the impending collapse of the USSR, which would make of the RSFSR and the Ukrainian SSR two separate countries. For the first time since 1783, when the USSR collapsed, Crimea was not part of a state including Russia.

It is worth noting not so much that Russia was able to determine the result of the referendum in the first place, as hold. That implies that the Ukrainian state had become enfeebled. The precedent is potentially destabilizing. For example, ethnic Russians represent the second biggest ethnicity in Kazakhstan, where Kazakhs are only about 40 percent of the population. It should be possible to find sufficient Russian-majority areas to justify a land grab in what is by far the largest of the Central Asian Republics. If such a breaking off of territory were to occur, it would be seen as affecting a Muslim land, but it should not be forgotten that the Crimean Peninsula is the home of the Crimean Tatars, and it was the Tatar Khanate of Crimea that was annexed by Russia as soon as it passed out of the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. Russia too has a Tatar region, Tatarstan, the home of the Volga Tatars, the ancient Khanate of Kazan, which was also conquered by the Russian State in the 18th century. Russian expansion was only checked when it came up against the British Indian Empire in the 19th century, during which the two empires played the Great Game. In place of Britain, the USA started playing the Game in the 20th century, and on the other side have been the USSR and now post-Soviet Russia.

The principle of self-determination is interesting, because the Crimean Tatars are a minority because of the conquest. It is worth noting that Russia, which has continued the Soviet policy of backing India, has opposed Kashmiri self-determination, as well as that of Chechnya. Since World War II, the tendency has been to maintain borders, even where they were lines drawn on a map by colonial powers. Indeed, the most recent revision of these borders was the creation of South Sudan, by carving a Christian state out of a Muslim country.

In fact, the only real competitor with Russia for the most cynicism shown during the Crimean episode has been the US. The concern it is showing for Ukrainian sovereignty is in contradistinction to its lack of any concern for the sovereignty of Iraq or Afghanistan, both of which it invaded and occupied, or for Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, where it launches drone strikes at will. The Ukrainian state is presently in such disarray that it has not only been unable to stop the referendum, but also the impending secession. It should not be forgotten that Russia has already retained a base for its Navy in Crimea, at Sevastopol, which it had leased at the time of the break-up of the USSR. Its concern about that Base seems to be behind the recent developments more than any concern for the Russian-speakers of Crimea.

The ability of the Russian Navy to move freely about the Black Sea is not just intrinsically important, but also because of the access it offers to the Mediterranean, where it has its only base outside Russia, at Tartus in Syria. That base is under threat from the unrest in the country, and it is through Syria that Pakistan is being drawn in. The recent Saudi-Qatari spat, which has become serious enough to cause the calling back of ambassadors, is being examined for its impact on the Syrian conflict, in which the two countries have backed the rebels. Also, there is Saudi Arabia letting Pakistan have $1.5 billion to shore up its foreign exchange reserves. While the US would like Pakistan to escape economic collapse, and prefers that one ally subsidise another rather than putting up any money itself, the Saudi angle is that even if it cannot get Pakistan to help it in its Syrian efforts, it can at least buy security. It should not be forgotten that when Saudi Arabia has faced security threats, Pakistani forces have come forward as a bulwark.

The developments in Ukraine cannot be ignored by Pakistan, though, developments nearer home may prevent enough attention from being focused on it. The problem is, they tie in with those developments. There is the impending US drawdown from Afghanistan, with which the government’s dealings with the Taliban, whether talks or an operation, are closely linked. Also involving the USA is the Iranian situation, where the negotiations on its nuclear programme coincide with Pakistan’s need for a pipeline for its gas.

It is thus possible to locate the Crimean crisis as part of a more general crisis involving the Middle East, in which Russia is deeply involved, and in which Pakistan is also interested. While there is no doubt that Pakistan would like to stay out, it might find that it cannot. It might find it preferable not to criticize Russia if it hopes to keep on its right side in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, but it will need to work out how it will best meet its interests. However, it will find itself under great US pressure to criticize Russia, which it should do in its own interest, not any other country’s. Instead, it should try to make Russia see that it should not use for Crimea the principle it rejected for Kashmir.

 The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

Email:maniazi@nation.com.pk