Crimea and Punishment

On the eve of Ukraine's presidential election, a resurgent Russia may use the disputed territory of Crimea to reassert its hegemony over its eastern neighbor.

Few neighbors are closer to one another than Ukraine and Russia. Both countries are East Slavic and Orthodox in makeup, trace their origins to Kievan Rus a thousand years ago, and belonged together as one state for more than three centuries. Yet cultural affinity does not necessarily breed friendship. To most Russians, Ukraine is simply "Little Russia" -- inconceivable as a separate country. And with the Jan. 17 Ukrainian presidential election, Russia gets another chance to prove its point.

While Ukrainians are understandably preoccupied these days with their country's economic meltdown, another crisis that Russia is seemingly determined to press, perhaps as early as 2010, will be over the fate of Crimea, the peninsula extending from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea. The autonomous region of 2 million ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tatars is part of Ukraine for the moment, but recently, Moscow has claimed it should rightfully belong to Russia.

Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the post-Soviet Russian Federation, did what he could to fortify Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. He insisted that Russia choose a path of "internal development," not an "imperial one." So in May 1997, Yeltsin pushed through treaties with Ukraine that divided the assets of the old Soviet Black Sea Fleet between the two countries. Moscow was granted a 20-year lease on a base in Sevastopol, Crimea's best port, and Russia recognized Ukraine's borders.

Along came Vladimir Putin in 2000. From the outset, he expressed sympathy with those who sought to preserve the Soviet Union. Four years into his presidency, Putin openly supported the eastern-looking candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, in Ukraine's presidential election, while his pro-Western opponent Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin. Although no Kremlin involvement was ever proven, the resulting backlash propelled Yushchenko and his Orange Revolution to power.

Since then, relations between Ukraine and Russia have only gotten worse. In January 2006 and January 2009, Russia cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, a key transit route to Western Europe. In 2008, when the United States campaigned for Ukraine to be admitted to NATO, Putin replied by threatening to end the country's very existence. Later that year in August, when Moscow rushed 8,000 marines from Crimea to fight against Georgia, Yushchenko vowed to block their return and supplied Georgia with missiles that shot down several Russian warplanes.

Moscow's list of grievances is long and lengthening: Ukraine sent soldiers to Georgia's defense; Ukraine wrongly expelled alleged Russian security officers; Ukraine is making wild accusations about Russia transporting heavy arms on Ukrainian territory without permission; Kiev is complaining too much about Russian installations in Crimea and is paranoid about the issuance of Russian passports in the area.

All these issues may come to a head in January. The only two plausible presidential candidates are the opposition leader (and former Putin favorite) Yanukovych and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. This time Tymoshenko appears to be Putin's preferred candidate.

Crimea is the wild card. What will Kiev do if the election ends in a stalemate? Yushchenko, the outgoing president who now prefers Yanukovych, controls the Ukrainian military and Security Service, while Moscow clearly favors Tymoshenko, who rules over the Interior  Ministry. The possibilities for mischief are great, and the peninsula is fertile ground for unexpected provocations.

The Kremlin is thought to have ties to Crimea's Russian nationalist groups, which regularly organize protests. An outright military intervention is unlikely, but Russian forces from the Sevastopol base have recently had tense encounters with Ukrainian authorities, and the potential exists for violent confrontation. With Russia looking to renew its lease on Sevastopol and Yushchenko growing increasingly adversarial, having a finger in the power struggle in Kiev is a major priority for the Kremlin.

The United States is central to Crimean developments, having issued substantial security assurances to Ukraine in 1994 to induce Kiev to dismantle its nuclear forces. The good news is that in all probability it is enough for President Barack Obama to stand up for Ukraine in the face of Russian intimidation, but clearly and loudly, and in time.



Africa's New Horror

South Sudan's declaration of independence could thrust the country back into a bloody civil war.

Think the only Sudan crisis is in Darfur, or that the horror there is winding down? You're wrong.

There's a new Sudan calamity in the making, and it may well come in 2010 with a unilateral declaration of independence by the enclave of South Sudan. If it does, the resulting conflict stands to be more painful, militarized, and devastating than Sudan has ever known. Imagine Darfur with a lot more guns, not to mention Chinese fighter jets.

The clock for this latest crisis started ticking ominously in 2005. A North-South civil war that left some 2 million dead and millions more displaced had finally ended. But that year's Comprehensive Peace Agreement pushed the touchiest issue of all -- the independence of the South, a France-sized area of just under 10 million people that won its autonomy in that 2005 deal -- six years into the future. The clock runs out in January 2011, but the crisis will likely come sooner.

Unfortunately, the "comprehensive strategy" on Sudan unveiled by U.S. President Barack Obama's administration in October depends almost entirely on the deluded notion that implementation of the 2005 peace agreement will go as planned. Obama's team said it hopes South Sudan's likely secession will be an "orderly transition to two separate and viable states at peace with each other."

But this is Sudan we're talking about, not Belgium. The actual scenario -- if Sudan's recent history is any guide -- is likely to be anything but orderly. A national census slated to happen before July 2007 was repeatedly delayed until finally taking place amid violence and gaping errors. Nonetheless, Khartoum has insisted that the count's doctored results be used to draw up parliamentary districts that favor the North. Voter registration, which also depends on the flawed census data, has just barely begun. So any expectation that April's general elections, a key test ahead of the January 2011 deadline, will be legitimate is surreal at best. The vote is likely to be marred by bloodshed, as most of the contenders will either be backed or opposed -- and usually both -- by heavily armed groups.

If the elections proceed but their results lack legitimacy, South Sudan's rulers will be under tremendous public pressure to unilaterally declare independence without a referendum. After all, the outcome of such a vote is not in doubt; you would be hard-pressed to find many southerners who prefer to remain under Khartoum's thumb.

There's also a tactical reason why South Sudan might go for broke: The North is acquiring an insuperable military advantage, and Khartoum is unlikely to relinquish its hold on the oil-rich South without a fight. In fact, for the last decade, Khartoum has been busy using revenue from that same oil to modernize its armed forces in preparation for conflict. In Darfur, the northern regime has used its primitive air force to deadly effect. When the Shenyang J-8 and Chengdu F-7 supersonic fighter-bombers recently acquired from China, the largest customer for Sudanese oil, are put to use, the results will be devastating. Chinese companies have also helped establish at least three weapons factories outside the Sudanese capital, including one that manufactures ammunition, effectively immunizing the regime against the effects of any future arms embargo.

Even if the South moves to secede before Khartoum's military might grows, the ensuing conflict will be messy. Skirmishes along the North-South border left at least 2,000 people dead and more than 250,000 displaced in 2009. The South's coming declaration of independence will undoubtedly provoke not only large-scale violence in the country formerly known as Sudan, but also the destabilization of the entire region as neighboring countries find themselves drawn in. Will Obama let it happen on his watch?