Crimea’s annexation six years on
Interview with Mykhailo Pashkov, Co-director of the Foreign Relations and International Security Programme at the Razumkov Centre. Interviewer Guntaj Mirzayev.
In early 2014, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in Europe’s first official land grab since the Second World War. Around the same time, a bloody conflict erupted in Eastern Ukraine which left large portions of Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions (collectively known as Donbas) under separatist control with heavy backing from Russia. Despite evidence pointing to its involvement, Russia still refuses to acknowledge any connection with the separatists.
GUNTAJ MIRZAYEV: Six years have passed since Russia started its secret operation to annex Crimea. In retrospect, do you think that it would it have been possible to resist the “little green men”?
DR. MYKHAILO PASHKOV: I think it would have been possible to resist. The situation could have been tackled in advance if the leadership of Ukraine had clear predictions and a realistic understanding of ongoing events. Everything happened very promptly and unexpectedly. For Ukraine, it was a stab in the back, which hardly anyone expected. The Russian side acted at an opportune moment when the Ukrainian leadership was completely disoriented, demoralised and in reality not properly functioning. Mr. Oleksandr Turchynov carried out presidential duties but he did not have full authority. Problems in the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine were extremely difficult. There was no clear plan of resistance. Primarily, there was no political will.
On the one hand, it was a very neatly planned, organised and very effectively carried out military-political operation on the Russian side. It was secretly prepared in advance. There is a lot of evidence regarding this. For example, on the eve of annexation, a medal “For the Return of Crimea” was issued.
Ukrainian armed forces that were deployed in Crimea did not receive precise orders on how to act. Therefore, actions were taken spontaneously. In some cases these actions were heroic, for example those of Colonel Yuliy Mamchur. However, troops were mostly left on their own. Despite everything, honestly speaking, possibilities existed to resist Russian expansion in Crimea then. But mainly due to reasons I have already discussed, the situation turned out this way.
Why did the Ukrainian army resist in Donbas, but not in Crimea?
I would not put the situation in such sharp terms. In Crimea, a rapid special operation was carried out with the participation of Russian Special Forces – airborne assault groups, ships belonging to Black Sea Fleet, etc. A military base was set up there well in advance. Moreover, pro-Russia views were prevalent enough in Crimea. I do not mean the Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainian part of the population. A significant portion of the Crimean population were either sympathetic to Russia or neutral.
In Donbas, again the factor of pro-Russian sentiment among locals played a crucial role. To some extent, it is possible to compare these two cases, but their details are different. In one case, there was an instant occupation. In the other, an incursion into mainland Ukraine in the form of military intervention occurred that took on a prolonged character over time.
So, are you suggesting that the popular mood in Crimea was more pro-Russia than in Donbas?
No, it is difficult to measure where it was more pro-Russia. In both cases, there were specific grounds, specific preconditions. In Crimea, Russia used those preconditions to the maximum extent. It was a very swiftly executed operation. Everything was already decided on the February 20th. Therefore, all events happened in a rapid and clearly planned manner. However, in Donbas a rather lengthy war started. This is the biggest difference between the two.
There is a common discourse in Ukraine that Crimea can be returned only after the problem in Donbas is solved. Do you agree with this argument?
No. Definitely not. To believe that the return of Crimea will only occur upon the liberation of Donbas is completely wrong. However, it should be noted that the particularities of the potential liberation of Donbas and Crimea are different. First of all because Crimea was illegally annexed by Russia and this was formalised under the constitutional norms of the Russian Federation. The State Duma and Senate voted in favour of this decision.
In Donbas, the situation is different. There is an unofficial military-terrorist operation of Russia – an intervention – present there. Therefore, Ukraine’s adopted mechanisms are rather different. It is also evident that the liberation process for Crimea will be longer and more difficult. Moreover, today there are no clearly defined legal, military-political or financial conditions for the liberation of Crimea. The international community has not created any clear rules, norms or plans for the return of Crimea. The United Nations General Assembly has adopted several resolutions on the militarisation of Crimea and the situation of human rights. However, the Security Council is completely blocked by Russia and cannot adopt resolutions without its vote. It is powerless in this respect.
Let’s talk about recent events. Several changes took place in Ukraine during the last year: a new president, a new parliament and a new government were decided upon. How do you think it will affect the process of returning Crimea?
The new government of Ukraine had some illusions. They thought that it is possible to rapidly minimise the problem of Donbas or end the war. The previous Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystaiko, upon being appointed to that position, stated in his parliamentary speech that the government expects to solve the problem of Donbas within half a year. This task was set by the president. In his election campaign, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy himself said that for him the primary objective is to end the war in Donbas. However, I think he understood that it is one thing to end the war and another thing to reintegrate Donbas. These are very different things, because ending the war can take less time, but reintegration will be a long process.
Regarding Crimea, the situation is more difficult and problematic. The new Ukrainian government does not have a clear, concrete and balanced programme for the de-occupation of Crimea. It currently does not exist. There have been some statements that it will be worked out and planned during this year. However, it is clear that without the participation and support of the international community, Ukraine cannot solve this problem. The key problem is that both previous and current governments managed foreign policy “in manual mode”. I mean that Ukraine did not have and today still does not have a clear foreign policy strategy. There is no major document that defines the main vectors of foreign policy taking into consideration the realities of the day. Moreover, there is no detailed state policy on how to manage relations with Russia. There is no programme that explains how to coexist with the aggressor state. This raises a number of questions. This is a problematic issue on all fronts – military, political, diplomatic, humanitarian, economic, energy, etc. This set of problems now faces Ukraine and it is necessary to solve them. The state programme adopted by the previous Oleksiy Honcharuk administration last year only touches upon certain issues regarding this.
President Zelenskyy declared February 26th as the official ‘Day of Resistance to the Occupation of Crimea and Sevastopol’. What do you think this means in the long-term perspective?
In the long-term perspective, it means that Ukraine, officially and unofficially, has not accepted the occupation of Crimea. For the government, the primary task is to react in a tough manner to any attempts at legitimisation regarding the annexation of Crimea. This includes the visits of foreign delegations to Crimea or visits of President Putin and so on. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs proactively responds in such cases. Right now, it is important to keep the issue of Crimea on the international agenda and to not let it to be sidelined by other events. It cannot become a “peripheral problem” that is unimportant for the international community. That is why it is necessary for Ukraine to raise this issue periodically in international platforms. At the OSCE, the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe, NATO, the UN General Assembly, Security Council, etc.
Russia inaugurated a road bridge connecting the Crimean peninsula with mainland Russia in May 2018. At the end of December last year, a railway bridge for passenger traffic was opened. What do you think about this?
It is the continuation of Crimea’s annexation. It is an attempt to legitimise the annexation, to create communication between mainland Russia and Crimea and to facilitate the movement of Russian citizens. All of these are related to Russia’s aggressive policy regarding Crimea. Crimea has been transformed from a ‘recreational peninsula’, where visitors could relax, into a huge military base. There is a large group of Russian troops deployed in Crimea. There were statements that in the future nuclear weapons may also be deployed there. Besides, there is a predatory squandering of local resources. Above all, these include coastal areas, land lots, etc.
Following annexation, Crimea lives on subsidies provided by the federal budget of Russia. If I recall correctly, Russia had to allocate half a billion dollars in 2018 alone to Crimea. This is a huge amount of money, maybe not in general, but definitely for the Russian budget. Crimea is a burden to Russia almost at the same level as Chechnya and Ingushetia. Since annexation, it has been a “depressive” region. Russia could not turn Crimea into an example of prosperity. Until the present day, Crimea remains a “dead end” territory. Due to sanctions, ships are not allowed to visit its ports; no company is allowed to cooperate with firms operating in Crimea. In short, Crimea is isolated from other countries in the Black Sea region and Europe in general.
The so-called “Water Crisis” is frequently debated. In your opinion, is this a strategy of Ukraine to influence Russia or an act of protest?
Firstly, I would not call it a “Water Crisis”. The water has already not been channeled to Crimea for a long time. This is understandable for apparent reasons. The issue has been raised a number of times, including also recently. This is an issue that is manipulated and used for purposes of publicity. According to international norms, including those established by the Hague Convention, an aggressor carries full responsibility in occupied territories. Crimea is under the occupational jurisdiction of Russia now. Therefore, the Russian side must be fully responsible for everything that takes place there. This is the first issue worth mentioning. The second is that Ukraine cannot sign a contract regarding the delivery of water because we do not recognise Crimea as a subject of Russia. The question is difficult and it involves not only water, but also electricity and so on. I would like to explain the general picture with an anecdote I have read somewhere: You receive a call and you are told “Six years ago your car was stolen. Can you please give us some gasoline for it now so that we can go for a short ride?”
From one side, proponents of the idea of providing water to Crimea say, “our citizens live there, we have to help”. From the other side, this is a territory that the enemy controls and therefore cooperation might be possible only when Crimea is liberated. Only then can we conduct favourable policies in our territory.
So, is this an act of protest and not a strategy?
This is a part of policy, but I would not say “strategy”. It is difficult to speak about a complex strategy in relation to Crimea. I already said that a complex plan regarding the de-occupation of Crimea has not been created yet. I think the issue about water is a “situational” element of policy rather than being a part of strategy. With time, we will see if it becomes a part of strategy or not.
With time, we see that the reactions of the international community regarding Russian aggression against Ukraine are being “softened”. For example, French President Emanuel Macron has said that, “Russia is no longer our enemy”. Apple has shown Crimea as a part of Russia in its applications. What does this imply about the future of the process? Do such actions embolden Russia?
I think Mr. Macron’s statement was situational. He wants to transform European Union policy according to his own vision. This includes returning relations with Moscow to a “business as usual” format.
Indeed, there is a tendency to push for restoring relations with Russia. This is also due to the rising influence of right-wing parties in EU countries. Russia uses this situation to its maximum extent with the final goal of fracturing the EU through its ring of agents, special operations, economic pressure and electoral interference.
The softening of international reactions emboldens Russia. For example, Russia regarded its return to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) as a victory. It was indeed a move forward for them and for Ukraine, it made the situation more difficult. Russia was aided by the leading countries of EU – Germany, France, etc. This is explained by two factors. Firstly, the deputies supporting this decision claimed that it is necessary for conducting dialogue with Russia. Secondly, Russia contributed to the budget of PACE and therefore officials working in that organisation made financial gains from this at many levels.
Furthermore, there is another very important issue of US-China confrontation, which diverts attention from other topics at an international level. This includes Crimea and Donbas. It changes the agenda and turns Ukraine into a peripheral issue.
Last question. What do you think about the near future? Do you think that Ukraine will regain its sovereignty over Crimea?
This is the position of the Crimean Tatars. They believe that Crimea should be returned as soon as possible and they cannot wait. For the Crimean Tatar people, this tragedy is harming them as a nation. It deprives them of their native land. For them, it is a major drama. It should be rightly understood as such. From the other side, all measures should be taken to soften the situation in Crimea. The rights of Crimean Tatars should be restored and international observers must be let in. However, these are unlikely under the current conditions of occupation.
In the near future, I think the situation will remain frozen and difficult to solve. The solution to the problem lies within Russia. Only major internal changes such as regime change, democratisation and liberalisation can encourage a solution to this problem. In general, a solution requires a great shift in thinking regarding both domestic and foreign policy.
This is however only one part of the problem. Demographic changes remain another issue. A very strong propaganda campaign has taken place and the thoughts of people have been altered. This concerns both Crimea and Donbas. During these six years, the psychology of locals has been immensely affected by Russian fake news and propaganda. Any change will require time, so that people can understand reality. The process will be long and not a matter of days or months.
Due to all of these complications, today it is more than difficult to speak of any clear prospects for solving the problem of Crimea.
Dr. Mykhailo Pashkov is Co-director of the Foreign Relations and International Security Programmes at the Razumkov Centre. Expert on Ukrainian-Russian relations, ex-diplomat and journalist. Currently, works on a project related to Ukraine’s European integration process under Russian pressure.
Guntaj Mirzayev is an intern at the Razumkov Centre and a Masters student in International Security Studies jointly organised by Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna and University of Trento.