Debates: A number of Russian and foreign experts describe how the West currently views the situation in Ukraine two years after Crimea’s incorporation into Russia.


Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar activists hold paper figures symbolizing victims of the Russian annexation of Crimea during a flashmob in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 16. Photo: AP

On the eve of the second anniversary of Crimea’s incorporation into Russia, several symbolic events took place, including a visit by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Kiev and the decision by the EU to prolong sanctions on Russia. Both events hint at the changing tenor of the conversation over Ukraine.

In her visit to Kiev, Rice gave a speech to students. She talked about democracy and its impact on a country’s development. She also raised controversial problems, including what the West calls the “annexation” of Crimea. In particular, she reiterated that none of the “civilized countries” would ever accept the annexation. She described the Ukrainian crisis as a frozen conflict, as is the case with Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria.

Another important event that happened before the anniversary of Crimea’s incorporation was the extension of EU sanctions on Russia for its policy in Ukraine. In particular, the EU prolonged individual sanctions against a number of Russian and Ukrainian politicians and public figures until Sept. 15. There are 147 people on the list and the EU finds each of them guilty for violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Also read: "Two years after Crimea's takeover, no signs of reconciliation"

Likewise, Rice was intransigent about the prolongation of sanctions and expressed hopes that neither the U.S. nor the EU would cancel them until the Kremlin changes its policy in Ukraine.

Amidst the continuing debate between Russia and the West over Crimea, Russia Direct interviewed a number of experts about the way the West currently views Crimea and the situation in Eastern Ukraine. What are the odds of a compromise, if any?

Richard Sakwa, professor at University of Kent
's School of Politics and International Relations 

The West’s attitude toward the Ukrainian crisis has changed very little. The basic position is that the non-negotiated change of territorial borders is unacceptable, although in this case there is recognition that the change reflected the wishes of the majority, as reflected not only in the referendum but also in various opinion polls, including one sponsored by an independent German agency. In other words, continuity is predominant at this time.

Nothing much will change until the U.S. presidential elections are over, and until there is a change of leader in Germany. We are at an impasse at present - both in terms of larger European politics, and even more so when it comes to Russian-Ukrainian relations. The only hope is to maintain the present relative stability, and thus avoid escalation into a broader war, and at the same time, work to ensure that Russia is ready when the situation changes.

In other words, 2016 is a year of preparation for changes to come, but no sign at present of sanctions being lifted or any fundamental shift in policies. Russia is being given very little credit for helping achieve the ceasefire in Syria, so do not expect any gratitude on that front.

Alexander Guschin, Ph.D., assistant professor at Russian State University for the Humanities, expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)

Two years after Crimea’s accession to Russia, the attitude of the West changed dramatically because of the significant number of events that happened during this period of time. The current state of relations between the two countries now reminds me of a zigzag line. However, negative moments are now more common than positive moments in this relationship.

Undoubtedly, the U.S. and the EU are not united on many questions. In the EU, there is a certain group of countries that hope for strengthening Russia-EU relations and find common ground. But there are also countries that think otherwhise and mostly vote for increasing the activity of NATO in Central Europe. This kind of internal disagreements will continue to exist. But the EU is showing more forbearance in its attitude to the situation than the U.S. Such a state of affairs is especially visible in the question of the Minsk agreements. France and Germany are trying to force Ukraine to carry out the clauses of the Minsk agreements and are taking a big part in the negotiations.

In my opinion, a compromise with the U.S. will not be found this year and the latest speech of Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State at the U.S. Department of State, about the attitude of the U.S. to the Crimean annexation is one more reason to think so. Nuland recently said that the U.S. would never recognize Crimea as a Russian peninsula and that it is very likely that sanctions on Russia would be broadened and prolonged because of the “blockade” of Crimea. But the EU acts differently: Europe is ready for collaborating with Russia in some fields, but still not ready for a deeper partnership and strategic relations. Moreover, the EU might be more and more active in such regions as Central Asia and the Southern Caucasus, where Russia also has interests.

The possibility of accomplishing the Minsk agreements this year is not really high, as I see it. However, the approaches for coming up with a compromise exist. The process of striving for compromise will continue, but there won't be a big breakthrough this year. Talking about Russia-Ukrainian relations, it is necessary to keep in mind that these relations are not broken forever. There are too many things that connect our countries and these ties are not that easy to break. On the other hand, now these relations are difficult and the process of changing this state of things will be long and strenuous.

Steven Pifer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center on the United States and Europe, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine

In the two years since Russia used military force to seize Crimea and then supported armed separatism in Eastern Ukraine, including with Russian troops, the attitude of Western countries toward Moscow has become steadily more negative. Russia is seen to have acted in gross violation of the cardinal rule of European security going back to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, i.e., states should not use military force to change borders. And few see Moscow as working actively to implement the Minsk II agreement.

It all depends on whether Russia and the separatists proceed with implementation of Minsk II. Unfortunately, more than one year after a ceasefire was to have taken hold, firing across the line of contact continues and all heavy weapons have not been withdrawn. While both sides have committed violations, OSCE and other observers put most of the blame on the separatists and Russia.

The West has been clear that full implementation of Minsk II is required for easing sanctions. Some in Moscow may hope that the European Union will not extend sanctions in July, but I believe that would be a mistake: the Europeans have held steady on sanctions. There is another set of sanctions that is linked to Crimea. They will remain in place for the indefinite future, in view of Russia's illegal annexation of the peninsula.

Michael Slobodchikoff, assistant professor of Political Science at Troy University

The Ukrainian crisis and Crimean referendum brought the West together the way few events since the end of the Cold War had. Western European countries joined with Eastern Europe and the United States in condemning Russian actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Analogies were made that the sleeping bear had awoken, and that bear had serious teeth. Thus Russian actions helped to unify the West in a way that it had not been previously unified.

Crimea's incorporation into Russia and resulting civil war in Ukraine left the West scrambling for effective measures to combat what they deemed a fundamental challenge to the global order. The West instituted sanctions against Russia, which in addition to the fall of the ruble and the fall in oil prices, have had a serious effect on the Russian economy. Since the most recent ceasefire in Ukraine, a status quo has emerged in the crisis, where Russia and the West agree to disagree. There is very little cooperation, and politicians seem to want to wait to see how the situation plays out. The West is wary of further antagonizing Russia, but also doesn't want to be seen as weak against Russia’s assertive behavior.

Ultimately, there seem to be cracks developing in Western unity. A new government in Poland is anti-West, and Hungary also is more supportive of Russia. Eastern Europe has suffered economically because of the sanctions (more than the United States), and Russia seems to be settling in to play a long game by working to expose cracks between Western unity and work to drive apart the alliance. There seems to be no appetite for further actions against Russia, and the West seems to be hoping that the situation will improve.

2016 is an election year in the United States, and thus neither a thaw in relations nor the cancellation of sanctions is imminent. Most of the candidates for president are discussing how they would be the only ones capable of standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and an aggressive Russian foreign policy. However, there are signs that other European countries are not happy with the current sanctions. They will begin to press to change the sanctions after the election in the United States. It remains to be seen whether the United States will be effective in keeping those countries from cancelling the sanctions.