Waxing emotional to the Duma; Obama banks on IMF; helping Putin's numbers; China feeling nervous; MH370 mystery sounds alarm bells By Hamish McDonald.

Crimea ‘in Russia’s heart, not its sights’, says Putin

“Don’t believe those who try to frighten you with Russia …”: Vladimir Putin delivers his statement to the Duma on Tuesday.
“Don’t believe those who try to frighten you with Russia …”: Vladimir Putin delivers his statement to the Duma on Tuesday.

When the dictator comes out on the balcony and says he has no further territorial ambitions, that’s when you’re supposed to get worried.

Vladimir Putin’s statement to the Duma (Russia’s parliament) on Tuesday waxed emotional about Crimea’s special place in the Russian psyche, ever since his namesake Prince Vladimir embraced Orthodox Christianity there in the 10th century, but suggested this was the extent of it. “Don’t believe those who try to frighten you with Russia and who scream that other regions will follow after Crimea,” Putin said. “We do not want a partition of Ukraine.”

While he painted Khrushchev’s transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 as the original illegality, he seemed to accept the earlier border changes by the “Bolsheviks”. Not so reassuring were the maudlin attacks on Western meddling to support “fascists, Russophobes and anti-Semites” in Ukraine, and his declaration Ukrainians are “not just neighbours, we are family”.

It means that while not earmarked for annexation, Ukraine and Belarus (the other family member) are off-limits to NATO. It will be interesting whether the US and numerous NATO members go ahead with military exercises with the Ukrainians planned for July.

1 . Obama banks on passing of IMF bill

The strategy of “kicking Putin in the cronies” is not causing many Russians to reach for the vodka bottle so far. As the Americans and Europeans discussed adding some serious oligarchs to the sanctions list, howls of alarm were coming from Cyprus to Finland about the potential loss of bank deposits and export contracts.

As for cutting off Russian gas exports, Paolo Scaroni of Italy’s oil and gas company Eni points out: “We need Russian gas every day. They need our money every year, or two years.” And when it comes to boosting the new government in Kiev, Washington is captive to its own toxic domestic politics.

Barack Obama has tied his promised $US1 billion loan guarantee for Kiev to passage of a stalled bill authorising a new US funding contribution to the International Monetary Fund. Though the IMF is one of the major instruments of American power, many of his Republican opponents don’t see it as such, but more as a rescuer of spendthrift foreign countries. 

Some, more cynical, Republicans are also hinting that if the US tax inspectors keep their noses out of the non-profit foundations of oil-refining billionaires Charles and David Koch, major donors to extreme right-wing politics, the IMF bill will go through. After all, the Koch charities are all about “advancing liberty and freedom”.

Crimea will help Putin’s numbersCrimea will help Putin, in a small way, in his goal of arresting Russia’s demographic decline. 

A decade ago, Russia was widely perceived as a nation drinking itself to death, likely to see its population down one-third by 2050. But since 2009, the Russian population has been growing, mostly from ethnic Russians migrating out of the peripheral “-stans” of the former Soviet Union but also from “natural” trends – a fairly high birthrate by European standards, and a rise in life expectancy from barely 65 at the turn of the century to more than 70 years now. 

At 143 million, the Russians still haven’t restored their peak numbers of nearly 149 million in 1991, when Putin’s nightmare of Soviet dissolution began, but 2 million Crimeans will speed things up.

2 . Nervous China abstains from UN Crimea vote

The agonising in Beijing about the Crimean annexation can be imagined. The precedents for Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan! The interference in the domestic affairs of another country! Not to mention Ukraine’s use as a military technology supplier. But in the end, Xi Jinping did his calculations and decided Russia was more important.

China abstained from voting on the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the Crimea referendum, a step taken as support by the Russians. Worried about dependence on the Indian Ocean-Malacca Strait route for oil supplies from the Gulf and Africa, China looks to Russian alternatives not just from overland pipelines but from the prospective Arctic maritime oil resources being opened up by the melting of the polar ice cap.

According to Anne-Marie Brady, a New Zealand scholar of Chinese politics who is taking a long look from Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Centre at China’s polar ambitions, China is lining itself up as one of the main customers. Its oil would have to travel through some narrow straits overlooked by the US, Japan and South Korea, but diversity of supply is still a high priority for Beijing. 

Financial sanctions, meanwhile, might draw Russia in tighter to the Chinese economic orbit, with Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong ever more important as the playgrounds and banks for the oligarchs and friends.

3 . Malaysian aircraft mystery sounds a few alarm bells

Malaysia is suddenly in global attention, but not in the way it might have wanted, with the People’s Daily in Beijing calling its handling of the MH370 disappearance “intolerable” and The New York Times writing about the incompetence of the hereditary leadership of its ruling United Malays National Organisation.

In Australia, we should be asking what happened with four decades of our involvement in the Five Power Defence Arrangement with Malaysia, if a stray Boeing 777 can fly over the country’s main air base at Butterworth, in Penang, without raising any alarms.

But at least the air mystery promptly took attention away from the latest blow given to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Only a few hours before MH370 took off, the ever-helpful Malaysian judiciary reversed Anwar’s acquittal on the latest trumped-up charge of sodomising a male staffer.

Anwar has another stage of appeal, but reinstatement of his five-year jail term prevented his imminent move via a byelection into the chief ministership of Selangor, the heavily populated and industrialised state surrounding the federal capital territories of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya.

This week it emerged that the chief pilot of MH370, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, was a distant relative by marriage of Anwar, a keen supporter of his Keadilan party, and may have been at the appeal court hearing that day. The link still doesn’t make much sense of explaining the disappearance (it would be a very self-controlled way of running amok) but it has drawn the spotlight back on the travesty of justice for Anwar.

There is concern in Washington conservative circles, keen for the American “pivot” to be visible in south-east Asia, that Malaysia might be dropped from Barack Obama’s tour of Asia in late April.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 22, 2014 as "Crimea ‘in Russia’s heart, not its sights’".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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