Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s visit to Crimea sharply conflicts with new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s aspirations to return Crimea to Ukraine.

The visit of Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (in middle) to Sevastopol draws critisism from the West. Photo: Russia Direct

On May 28, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu paid a visit to Sevastopol, the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The visit came after the May 25 Ukrainian elections, which may be seen as symbolic and indicative, especially given new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s plans to return Crimea to Ukraine via international legal mechanisms.

Shoigu examined the infrastructure of the Black Sea fleet and other military facilities, as well as participated in a historic conference on the 70th anniversary of Crimea’s liberation from Nazi Germany. Shoigu included in his remarks accusations against the West of attempting to “depreciate the feat of the Soviet people in World War II” and called for an accurate and “especially careful attitude toward our history.”

It’s not the first visit of representatives of Russia’s authorities after Crimea’s secession. On March 24, Shoigu inspected troops and military facilities in Crimea, making him the first senior Russian official to travel to the Black Sea peninsula. In addition, he accompanied Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Crimea on May 9, when Russia celebrated Victory Day. Likewise, Russian Prime Minister Medvedev paid several visits to Crimea. All of these visits were met with a great deal of criticism in the West as somehow unacceptable.     

Although it is unclear whether Shoigu was purposely scheduled to visit Crimea after the election in Ukraine, experts in the West may again regard this action as provocative given the ongoing tensions in U.S.-Russia relations and Poroshenko’s decisive intent to return Crimea to Ukraine.    

Pavel Verkhniatskyi, the director of the Kiev-based Center for Operational Strategic Analysis (COSA), sees Shoigu’s visit as “a symbolic gesture” targeting Crimea’s people, whom the Russian authorities cannot forget. One of the goals of the visit – participation in the historic conference dedicated to the 70th anniversary of Crimea’s liberation from fascist occupation – is in line with “Russia’s general information strategy aimed at presenting Ukraine’s leadership in a negative light,” Verkhniatskyi asserts.

“Today, any moves from the representatives of Russia’s authorities over Crimea are seen as provocative,” said Verkhniatskyi. “Neither Kiev nor the West recognizes the secession of Crimea. They see it as annexation for a reason.”

Kiev’s official reaction to Shoigu’s visit will be predictable and Ukraine is likely to voice it in the context of questions about Ukraine’s territorial integrity. This line of reasoning suggests that the head of another country’s Defense Ministry can’t pay a visit to a country without the preliminary negotiations of its authorities, Verkhniatskyi said.

Gordon Hahn, analyst at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation and former expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), echoes Verkhniatskyi’s view, assuming that “almost anything Russian officials say nowadays is seen as provocative in the West.”

At the same time, he doesn’t see Shoigu’s statements at the historic conference in Sevastopol, in particular, and his visit, in general, as “particularly provocative.”

“The problem is that a major part of the conflict is the division in Ukraine between those who fought for the Red Army or as red partisans and those who fought alongside the Nazi German army in the vain hope of winning Ukrainian independence,” he explains. “In this regard, Russia naturally sides with the former, since Russian grandfathers fought, died, and won the war against the Nazis and they naturally want to honor their fallen heroes. The same is true on the other side.”

In this context, the difference between Russia and the West results from Russia’s strong assumption that the West is backing the government in Kiev, which is dominated by officials from western Ukraine. These officials typically support those who fought under the Nazis and who do not respect the Soviet victory, Hahn argues.

“This appears to overturn 70 years of postwar history in which Soviet and Western countries saw themselves as allies and joint victors over fascism,” he said. “In the eyes of radical nationalists in the West, this dynamic could lead to the rehabilitation of Nazism to some extent.”

After all, Hahn continues, the West backed Viktor Yushchenko, who was the first Ukrainian president to endorse the rehabilitation of the Ukrainian National Organization and Stepan Bandera [a controversial Ukrainian political activist and a leader of the Ukrainian nationalist movement in Western Ukraine that fought for Ukrainian independence – editor’s note] and who used the 1930s famine to rebuke Russia.  

Meanwhile, Verkhniatskyi thinks that the extent of provocations and accusations between Russia and the West differs, depending on the situation.

First, Poroshenko announced his plans to return Crimea through diplomatic methods, and didn’t even imply that he would launch military campaigns in Crimea’s direction. In this context, Shoigu’s visit (which, again, is not the first since Crimea’s secession) and Poroshenko’s claims are in different dimensions, Verkhniatskyi argues.

Second, the military activity of the Ukrainian forces (which is described as an anti-terror campaign) is currently focusing on Eastern Ukraine. And in this context, Shoigu’s visit might appease Ukraine to a certain extent, Verkhniatskyi believes.

“Ukraine’s version of this situation might be the following: If the Minister of the country-aggressor is not in its Joint Staff, then active military action from the Russian side won’t be undertaken at least during this visit,” he clarified.

Shoigu’s visit and its impact on Russia-West relations

Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu paid a visit to Sevastopol. Photo: Russia Direct

Such visits hamper diplomacy and have as their aim “destroying [Russia’s] relations with Ukraine and the U.S. as well as with Europe,” no matter whether these goals are conscious or unconscious, according to Verkhniatskyi. He also points to the fact that the Moscow International Security Conference (held May 23-24) saw the lack of delegations from the U.S. and Europe.

In addition, Norway suspended military cooperation with Russia until the end of the year and canceled Shoigu’s visit, which, according to Verkhniatskyi, shows that Moscow's activities around Ukraine and Crimea in particular only fuel tensions between Russia and the West.

“And Shoigu’s visit to Crimea is a small puzzle in this mosaic,” he said.

According to him, it’s because Russia and the West blame each other for fueling conflicts and civil wars (including in Ukraine).

“Accusations never contribute to strengthening relations between countries,” he said.

Likewise, Hahn argues such visits “somewhat antagonize the West.”

“The problem is really a much more fundamental conflict of interests, with the West trying to maximize its power by expanding NATO and Russia trying to prevent that by blocking Ukraine's re-orientation westward,” he added. “NATO expansion basically 'militarized' Western democracy-promotion and EU expansion policies which by themselves posed no security threat to Russia.”

Hahn believes that this militarization of democracy promotion is seen by Russia “as part of a growing threat or at least weakening of Russia's national security.”

Meanwhile, some Russian experts make no bones about their indifference toward the West’s reaction to Shoigu’s visit in Crimea. For example, Igor Korotchenko, editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based National Defense magazine and director of the Center of Analysis of the World’s Arms Trade, says Moscow doesn’t care at all about the reaction from the West, because “Crimea belongs to us.”

Russia doesn’t take into account the West’s response to its actions in Crimea, Russia only takes into consideration its tactics and strategic goals as well as its national interest, he clarified.

However, Michael E. O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research at Brookings’ Foreign Policy Department, questions Russia’s actions in the Black Sea region and “cannot say anything good about how Putin has pursued his aims here,” because “they fly in the face not only of international norms but of basic decency.” But, at the same time, he acknowledges that there is “a kernel of reasonableness” to Russia’s claim on Crimea.

“Preferably, we will nonetheless find a way to calm the situation and not let things go further,” he said.  “I doubt very much they can be reversed, in Crimea. If Putin had wanted annexation, and felt the local population could agree to that, he should have waited a year or two to have a proper referendum under international supervision.”