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The Crimean Platform: possible light in the hybrid tunnel

On February 26th, Ukraine celebrated the “Day of Resistance to the Occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol”. On this day, the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the first meeting of the ambitious “Crimean Platform”. However, is this a real game-changer that will help solve issues related to the de-occupation, demilitarisation and reintegration of the peninsula? Will it also help protect the human rights of the Crimean people?

August 23, 2021 - Christine Karelska Pavlo Vugelman - Articles and Commentary

Flag of Ukraine and Crimean Tatars flying in Kyiv. Photo: Alexey123 / Shutterstock

Russian hybrid warfare is still affecting Ukraine and Putin has made it clear to the world that the Kremlin has no intentions to stop. The Russian president’s recent essay on the “historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians” has shown that Russia will not stop its hybrid warfare until its deeply-rooted imperialistic desires are completely satisfied. For Putin’s Russia, it is crucial to keep Ukraine under its influence and halt any attempts by the country to pursue EU integration.

The Minsk process seems to be caught in a deadlock, as the Kremlin sees no alternative to the full implementation of these accords by Ukraine. For Putin there is no room for any changes, as he continues to insist on implementing the so-called ‘Steinmeier Formula’. The main provisions of this ‘formula’ support the so-called special status of Donbas in the Ukrainian constitution and call for conducting elections without security guarantees. It also implies open dialogue with the controversial DNR/LNR authorities in the occupied territories. Recently, Putin has claimed that Ukraine is simply Russophobic and does not truly want Donbas. Moreover, in his opinion, people in Donbas do not need Ukraine and the Western order.

For Zelenskyy, it is crucial to find new ways to establish a long-awaited peace and reintegrate all of the occupied territories. The launch of the Crimean Platform is an ambitious step, as it will help remind the world about the illegal annexation of Crimea back in 2014 that took everyone by surprise. But will it really help reintegrate Crimea and make Putin give up his imperialistic ambitions?

Russia is now attempting to discredit the Crimean Platform right before its launch, appealing to its ‘illegitimacy’ and ‘failure’. Such claims and a Russian military build-up near Ukrainian borders have made it impossible to conduct any negotiations in the Minsk format. This is particularly true regarding the Crimea case. Moreover, it will not help find peace with Russia’s aggressive rhetoric.

The platform will mark the first time that such a high-profile event has occurred in the history of independent Ukraine. This will help push Crimea back onto the international agenda, as it is not discussed in the Minsk format. Indeed, it has only been discussed by the UN General Assembly and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). The Kremlin has argued that there can be no debate over the Crimea case and that there is no need to bring up the past. Sanctions are not enough to change the Kremlin’s behaviour completely. For Ukraine it is crucial to state its case loudly so that international partners do not simply turn a blind eye and produce more UN/PACE resolutions expressing deep concern.

It is worth noting that the platform will operate on four levels: heads of state, foreign ministers, parliaments and expert circles from different countries. The foreign ministers of the G7 countries have supported this initiative and have unanimously condemned the ongoing actions of Russia, which undermine the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine .

Currently, the exact number of countries and in what capacity they will participate in the platform is unknown. This is due to Russia’s attempts to threaten and blackmail those countries. According to the First Deputy Foreign Minister of Ukraine Emine Dzhaparova, it seems that the countries that have received an invitation can be divided into three groups. These include those that have officially confirmed their participation, those that still have to decide at what level to be represented, and those that have not yet decided whether they will accept the invitation at all. For Ukraine, it is important to involve those countries who guaranteed the security of Ukraine by signing the Budapest Memorandum. China, Great Britain and Turkey are also viewed as key participants, as they have leverage when it comes to relations with Russia. Turkey is particularly interested in the safety of the Black Sea region and is a staunch supporter of the Crimean Tatars. Zelenskyy can definitely count on strong support from the Baltic and Lublin Triangle states and Moldova and Georgia, its key partners in the Eastern Partnership. Poland will also likely offer support alongside several states that have large Ukrainian diasporas, such as Canada and Australia. America, Ukraine’s main strategic partner in military cooperation, has also agreed to participate. However, the details of this participation will depend on long-awaited negotiations between Zelenskyy and Biden. Meanwhile, it has been confirmed that the US will be represented by Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, instead of Biden or Harris as hoped for by Kyiv. France will send its foreign affairs minister, whereas Germany will actively participate in all aspects of the platform. Kyiv is still eager to see France and Germany, both EU heavy-weights and states that helped set up the Minsk format, send Macron and Merkel to represent them respectively. This would give more weight to the platform and demonstrate to Russia the countries’ commitment to Ukraine and their readiness to offer new solutions to current affairs. According to experts, an official invitation to Russia should also be sent for diplomatic purposes. It is clear that Russia will decline any invitation. Nevertheless, such a move can also be used by Kyiv in the long diplomatic game.

Ukraine’s long-term goals are to reintegrate Crimea through human rights and sustainable development, provide security in the Azov-Black Sea region and “win and mobilise old/new friends”. Short-term goals include the documentation of all human rights violations on the peninsula and any ecological and economic issues caused by the Russian annexation. Kyiv also hopes to form a strong coalition of countries that will support its initiatives on a regular basis and offer practical advice to make Russia play by international rules. Otherwise, Crimea will turn into a military base that could disrupt the rules-based Euro-Atlantic security architecture at any time, just as Russia successfully did back in 2014.

The work of the platform should not be declarative. It should have decisive practical outcomes and offer a detailed roadmap for the whole region. Political and diplomatic work is expected afterwards regarding the human rights dimension. This would involve looking at the case of political prisoners and the restoration of the Crimean Tatar people’s rights. Security in the Kerch Strait and Black Sea regions, the safety of shipping and the further demilitarisation of the peninsula would also likely be topics of concern.

All in all, the road to Crimea’s reintegration will be long and difficult. In the long term, these efforts could make Russia even more aggressive and lead to an escalation of conflict in Eastern or even Southern Ukraine. Western experts believe that the south of Ukraine, especially the city of Odesa, is a key target for Putin. Apart from its hybrid activities, the Kremlin could choose to use traditional military actions. The potential military threat should never be underestimated, neglected or completely forgotten. The platform will serve as the perfect instrument in the country’s mind games with Putin. The important thing here is not to play too long but rather support declarations with concrete actions. In the era of Putinism, it seems unlikely to find any compromises regarding the occupied territories. However, the Crimean Platform is a long-term project that could eventually help restore Ukrainian sovereignty over the disputed peninsula.

Pavlo Vugelman is the Vice-Mayor of the city of Odesa and creator of the Odesa Investment Office 5T (technology and innovation, trade, transportation, trust and tourism). He is interested in international relations, economics, technology, innovation and start-ups.

Christine Karelska is a College of Europe alumna and assistant to a Deputy of Odesa City Council. She is interested in EU-Ukraine relations, international relations and security studies.

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