With the second anniversary of Crimea’s incorporation into the Russian Federation, neither Moscow nor Kiev can agree on what needs to happen next, and this is not a good sign.
Unidentified gunmen wearing camouflage uniforms blocked the entrance of the Crimean Parliament building, with a poster reading "Crimea Russia" in Simferopol, Crimea, on March 1, 2014. Photo: AP
Exactly two years ago the Kremlin gave the green light to the deployment of alleged "polite people" in Crimean peninsula amidst the Ukrainian crisis. This how "the Crimea saga" started officially, although the most of the Russian Black sea fleet had been already deployed on the peninsula. However this story had solid prerequisites.
Over the past two weeks, politicians, journalists and experts have repeatedly revisited the events of two years ago in Ukraine: the second Maidan in Kiev, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s escape to Russia, the incorporation of Crimea and armed conflict in the Donbas. All of these were unprecedented events in the post-Cold War era, leading to confrontation between Russia and the West.
In this string of landmark anniversaries, a special role belongs to Russia’s incorporation of Crimea. After a 22-year period as part of an independent Ukraine, Crimea became part of Russia in the form of two separate constituent entities of the federation (the city of Sevastopol being the second constituent entity).
From that point onwards, we have seen a clash between two diametrically opposed narratives. In one of them, Russia’s incorporation of Crimea is seen as the result of annexation, revanchism, the return of the Soviet Union and the strengthening of anti-Western sentiment. In the other, Russia’s incorporation of Crimea is seen as a demonstration of the people’s will, the right of nations to self-determination, the restoration of historical justice and a “return to home port.”
However, like any other history of post-Soviet territorial conflicts, the Crimean “case” has many different measuring sticks that do not fit neatly into a world of black and white schemas.
Fears before Crimea’s incorporation
Last week, the media published a declassified transcript of a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine on Feb. 28, 2014. This document also appeared on the official website of the Council. At that meeting two years ago, they addressed the issue of Ukrainian territorial integrity and preventing Crimea from being transferred to Russian jurisdiction.
After the publication of this source text, Ukrainian politicians and experts concentrated on trying to allocate the share of total blame among senior officials, who two years ago were unable to properly defend the country’s national sovereignty.
Meanwhile, this transcript from two years ago is not only interesting in the context of the domestic political divisions in Ukraine. Many of the assessments made during the 2014 meeting of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine are being repeated today, especially when it comes to talk about returning of the peninsula to Kiev’s control.
“Internal troops and the Patrol and Inspection Service of Simferopol are still in active service, but they will not operate against the Russians,” the transcript reads. “Separately, I would like to mention the fact that the majority of the population of Crimea holds pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian positions. This is a risk that we need to take into account.”
The fragment cited above is an assessment of the situation at that time made by the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Arsen Avakov. February 28, 2014, was only the second day that he officially assumed this post, before which, for a few days, he had served as the acting head of the Ministry. Similar views on the situation on the peninsula were also expressed by the then head of Ukraine’s National Security Service (SBU) Valentyn Nalyvaychenko and Defense Minister Igor Tenyukh.
Subsequent events have confirmed all the fears expressed by those attending the National Security and Defense Council meeting. In March of 2014, Ukrainian armed forces in Crimea had about 18,800 military personnel. And in the process of Crimea joining Russia, 9,268 Ukrainian military personnel went over to serve with the Russian military, including 2,786 officers, including the commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Denis Berezovsky (having received this appointment on March 1, 2014).
One-third of Ukrainian military personnel wrote letters of resignation, while less than one-third of all Ukrainian troops, according to the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, chose to continue service on the “mainland.”
However, the most remarkable thing in this whole story is something altogether different. Those taking part in the National Security Council meeting were prepared to discuss a variety of measures and ideas. Among them were the establishment of “treason” measures for Crimean officials, the introduction of martial law or a state of emergency, rotation and redeployment of military contingents, as well as diplomatic efforts to neutralize Russia’s offensive.
However, almost no one talked about the need for establishing dialogue with the people of Crimea, at that time the vast majority of which were citizens of Ukraine, or the reasons why the population of the peninsula did not see their future in a united Ukraine.
Instead of understanding that Ukraine was a country with an uneasy identity, which required delicate handling, the meeting of the National Security Council two years ago had decided to look at everything that opposed the Maidan Revolution as archaic, pro-Soviet, and historically doomed. Thus, is it then not surprising that this approach was fully rejected in a number of regions of the then still united country?
In fact, before 2014, Crimea was not considered as a priority geopolitical problem of the post-Soviet space. In contrast to the Caucasus, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the peninsula saw no conflicts with refugees, displaced persons, or loss of life.
The territorial integrity of Ukraine (with Crimea as part of the country) was recognized by the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership, signed on May 31, 1997 and ratified as a Russian federal law in March 1999. Even shortly after the “five-day war” in the Caucasus (also known as the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict), where the third Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had supported his Georgian counterpart, this Treaty was extended for another ten years.
The Crimea precedent in historical context
However, it would be wrong to consider the Crimean crisis of the preceding year as something spontaneous, and the peninsula itself as the land of Nod. Already twenty years before the “Russian Spring” in Crimea, there had been attempts to revise the status of the peninsula in Russia’s favor.
And if at the time, Kiev authorities had not demonstrated diplomatic skills, as well as a considerable amount of resourcefulness, it is possible that on the peninsula the same things would have occurred as in Abkhazia or Nagorno-Karabakh.
Thus, during all subsequent years, Crimea remained as a special part of Ukraine. Its involvement in common processes that were occurring in the entire country (social, political, cultural) was even lower than that even that of the Donbas region, not to mention other parts of the country. However, any problems that arose were resolved not going beyond a certain status quo.
Why did Crimea choose Russia?
Today, the majority of analysts in the U.S. and the European Union point to Russian intervention in the Crimean crisis in the winter of 2014. This fact has been admitted today in Moscow at an official level, including by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, in recognizing the validity of this assessment, it is impossible not to see that the crisis on the peninsula, which led to a change in its jurisdiction, as not being limited just to the single “green men” factor.
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As it was aptly noted by the Ukrainian political scientist at Baylor University Professor Sergey Kudelia, “Very many people in the southeastern regions of Ukraine considered the new leaders of the state, who came to power after the Euromaidan, as illegitimate.”
Indeed, the “Second Maidan,” which in contrast to the “Orange Revolution” in the years 2004-2005, was accompanied by acts of violence, created a vacuum of legitimacy, and promoted the privatization of the functions of state violence to separate groups.
We can recall the seizures of administrations of different levels in the east and center of the country, and the massacre of disagreeable opponents of the “revolutionaries.” As a result, even those people in Simferopol and Sevastopol, who just yesterday were ready to discuss different political configurations with Kiev, eventually ended up choosing to return to “home port.”
The Kremlin raises the stakes
Of course, Russia took advantage of this situation and raised the stakes.
“It is still unclear whether the people in the Kremlin, who made this decision on launching the Crimean operation, considered what long-term and large-scale consequences this action would entail,” says Russian military expert Mikhail Barabanov.
However, in any answer to this question, it is obvious that the “Crimean issue” cannot be considered exclusively within the framework of regulatory and legal approaches when certain agreements are considered on their own, in isolation from the wider political and socio-economic contexts, such as the problems of nation-building or international security. After all, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum was signed in conditions when the expansion of NATO towards the East, including into post-Soviet space, had not yet begun.
Does this mean that Russia did not violate this agreement, or does not bear its share of responsibility for the current crisis? Of course, Moscow has not complied with the terms of the international treaties that it had signed, and for this, it bears responsibility.
However, to reduce this multifaceted problem only to this, ignoring the position held by the majority of the Crimean population, and systemic failures of Ukrainian authorities (which during a quarter of a century were not able to integrate the problematic peninsula), means to obviously simplify the perception of post-Soviet processes.
Together with Crimea’s joining of Russia, Moscow has inherited a wide range of problems, starting from the integration of the Crimean Tatar community, to socio-economic difficulties caused by the crisis and sanctions pressure. However, does this mean that Ukrainian leaders have learned from their defeat two years ago?
Unfortunately, for the most part, their approach to Crimea, as to a lost territory (but separate from the people living there), remains the same. As aptly noted by British expert Thomas de Waal, "by the end of last year, the government in Kiev had cut most transport links, trade and electricity shipments to Crimea. Social welfare payments are also cut to residents of Donbas. People in Crimea are experiencing blackouts and economic hardship. In short, the blockade is unlikely to endear them to the prospect of re-joining Ukraine, even if that option were available."
On Feb. 26, 2016, the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko instructed his subordinates to prepare a special meeting of the National Security and Defense Council, at which participants were to consider a revised strategy for the reintegration of Crimea. What subjects does he see as priorities?
The head of the Ukrainian state talks about the need to develop proposals for a significant strengthening of military capabilities in the Kherson Oblast, and along the Black Sea coast of the country, as well as the preparation of a detailed plan for the protection of national interests “in international courts, bringing Russia to accountability for Ukraine, as a state, and Ukrainian private companies.”
At the same time, Poroshenko keeps stating that, “There are no Russian citizens living in Crimea, the peninsula being inhabited exclusively by citizens of Ukraine, where our people live on our territory, which is temporarily occupied.”
That leads to the obvious question: How will the Ukrainian leader take into account the existing mindset of people who do not consider their new situation as an occupation? Once again, Ukraine is placing the same emphasis on “territorial integrity” and “unity of the state,” without proper attention to the unity of the people and searching for a compromise model of nation building.
To what extent is this approach consistent with Kiev’s declared “European choice”? And to what extent does the bigger goal of “containing Russia” allow the West to ignore the interests of those who are not ready to join this process? As we can see, two years after the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, the questions remain more numerous than ready answers.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.