The annexation of Crimea two years ago unleashed an unexpected confluence of new geopolitical events. Looking back at history, however, many of these events might have been anticipated in advance.
Demonstrators hold red flags and a map of Crimea at a rally marking the one year anniversary of the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, in downtown Moscow on March 18, 2015. Photo: AP
For a very different take read: "Two years after Crimea's takeover, no signs of reconciliation"
Mar. 18 marks exactly two years since Russia's State Duma ratified the Agreement on Crimea's accession. With this document, the Kremlin attempted to legitimize the annexation of the territory of a different country accomplished with the assistance of the “little green men.”
So far, the history of post-World War II Europe knows no other precedent of changing the borders of a country by another state, which signed the friendship and cooperation treaty with that country. Moscow and Kiev signed such a treaty in 1997, with the obligations to respect “the inviolability of existing borders” of each other.
The historical basis for events in Crimea
The events that unfolded in 2014 cannot be analyzed outside the context of Ukraine-Russia relations, which have always been complicated. Both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union always paid special attention to the “Ukrainian issue.”
With the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Ukraine-Russia relations turned international, but that did not make them one bit less complicated.
The two countries pursued different goals, which led to disagreements. While Russia perceived the CIS as the prototype of a new integration mechanism in the post-Soviet space, Ukraine saw it as a means of a “civilized post-Soviet divorce” from the very beginning. All this happened because Russian sovereignty proclaimed on July 12, 1990 was not accompanied by the automatic revision of its imperial past and the reexamination of its relations with its immediate neighbors.
Russian politicians and scholars gradually developed two distinct perspectives on the future of Ukraine. The first saw it as an artificial unsustainable formation destined to collapse on its own in due time only to be organically reintegrated into Russia.
The second perspective rested on the premise that while Ukraine may de jure remain independent, it should still be controlled by Moscow. This position explains why, in 1992, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation ruled the 1954 transfer of the Crimea to Ukraine unlawful. In 1993, the same legislative body approved the Russian status of the city of Sevastopol, and in March 2014, the State Duma of Russia made the peninsula a part of Russia as its federal subject.
In general, Russia-Ukraine relations have been declining since the collapse of the Soviet Union, going from bad to worse. The first wake-up call for Ukraine came in September 2003 when Russia unilaterally started building a dam from its coastline in the direction of Ukraine’s Tuzla Spit in the Sea of Azov.
After the incident, the Kremlin claimed that Ukraine was not really an independent state, that Russia could have won the Great Patriotic War on its own, without Ukraine’s assistance. Then came the “gas wars,” endless “trade wars” with various tariff and non-tariff restrictions imposed by Moscow, unfair competition, and other economic measures.
All these efforts aimed at achieving the sole goal of keeping the neighbor state within Russia’s sphere of influence. The Kremlin actively manipulated political processes within Ukraine, and the Russian capital was widely represented in the manufacturing and banking sectors of Ukrainian economy.
Also read Russia Direct's debates: "Two years after Crimea: New compromise or further confrontation?"
Russian involvement in its neighbor’s domestic affairs peaked in 2011-13 when Ukrainian ministers, including heads of security, defense and law enforcement agencies, were all found to have dual citizenship, which is explicitly against the laws of Ukraine.
“The battle for Ukraine” became particularly dire during the preparations for the EU’s Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in the fall of 2013. Even though Kiev and the EU had been negotiating the creation of a free trade zone under the Eastern Partnership initiative, Moscow categorically refused to consider the option of letting Ukraine simultaneously be part of Russia’s Customs Union and the EU.
Therefore, the acting Ukrainian leadership failed to sign the Association Agreement in Vilnius, and in November 2013, the country entered a deep political crisis that led to the tragic Euromaidan and forced then-President Viktor Yanukovych and his team to flee the country.
The Crimean Spring and its potential consequences
These events served as the catalyst for the implementation of the Kremlin's Crimean project. The defense of the Russian-speaking community from what the Moscow called "the Kiev junta" was seen as the official reason for deploying unidentified military personnel. Locals described them as “little green men,” why the Russian President Vladimir Putin viewed them as “the polite people.”
These "polite people" provided support for and were actively involved in blocking administrative buildings and Ukrainian military bases. On March 16, 2014, the results of the so-called “referendum” on the future status of the peninsula were used as the reason to make Crimea a part of Russia.
The referendum that was organized and carried out in violation of all laws and regulations of Ukraine makes for a hastily laid foundation, rendering the structure surrounding Crimea unstable and vulnerable in the near future.
Moreover, Crimea 2014 brought on a new, larger tragedy. After the annexation, Russia launched a new program provisionally referred to as “the Novorossiya (New Russia) Project.” It was meant as an iteration of the Crimean scenario and aimed at alienating several eastern and southern regions of Ukraine by creating a pro-Russian quasi-state. On one hand, it was supposed to serve as a kind of buffer between Russia and Europe. On the other hand, it would provide land access to the annexed Crimea.
On May 2, 2014, tragic events in Odessa, that saw more that 40 people killed as a result of clashes between Maidan supporters and their pro-Russian opponents, put to rest the full-scale Novorossiya project. So, the Kremlin focused on several parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions adjacent to the Russian border. This area turned into a bleeding wound on the body of the Ukrainian nation, while official Moscow faced international sanctions and deteriorated relations with a wide range of countries.
Russia could not let this failure have a negative implications on the Kremlin’s reputation inside the country. Thus, September 2015 saw the launch of a new TV epic for Russian viewers: the Syrian anti-terrorist operation that gradually sidelined the Ukrainian conflict. Ultimately, Crimea turned out to be the key to Pandora’s box that the Kremlin had been seeking in the post-Soviet space.
Those who devised the operation must have been counting on a different outcome. Moscow hoped that the West’s tacit consent, fashioned after the response (or lack thereof) to the Russo-Georgian conflict, would create the precedent that could be utilized in other regions of the post-Soviet space.
Crimea’s “return home” as envisioned by the Kremlin could have been used as a starting point for changing the global world order. That much could be gathered from the Aug. 14, 2014 events in Crimea, when the Russian President met with members of political factions represented in the State Duma.
The choice of location was quite symbolic, and as is well known, Russian politics favors symbolism. The meeting was scheduled not in Simferopol, the administrative center of Crimea, but rather in Yalta, thus creating a historical allusion to the Yalta Conference of 1945 that laid the foundation of the post-war world order dominated by two superpowers: the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.
So after two years, Ukraine remains the only victim of the annexation of the Crimea and the tragic events that followed. The fighting there is still going on. The economy and social sector were adversely affected by the severance of economic ties and the overall disruption of the country’s industrial and manufacturing complex.
Still, Pandora’s box has been left unattended and remains open. For now, it is unclear what trouble it is going to bring forth next for the international community in general and Russia in particular.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.