Long abandoned as a main news story, the Russian annexation of Crimea is as important a topic today as it was when it splashed across headlines in 2014. Providing a summary of the lead up to the current situation, starting from the initial pro-Russian movements in February 2014 inevitably entails over-simplification. Although they formed the economic core of Crimea, ethnically Russian annexation sympathizers were sparse electorally and their main Russian Unity party had scraped 4% of the vote in the previous parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, on February 27, a complete mobilization of the Russian minority and comprehensive support from the Russian government allowed the separatists to take control of key institutions and impose what was effectively a Russian military state headed by a sympathetic Crimean administration. In the subsequent month the annexation was formalized through a combination of decrees issued by the Crimean government and Russian constitutional amendments. It was finalized in a July 2015 statement by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. A stalemate has followed, with Russian insistence on legally sanctioned territorial integrity conflicting with Western condemnations and economic sanctions.
Given the continued de facto rule of Russian infantry and special forces in the region, the sanctions have not helped project U.S. and EU policy onto the region. Meanwhile, inside Crimea human rights violations occur on a daily basis. Systematic disappearances of Salafi Muslim and Tatar activists are commonplace, as well as a routine reshaping of the legal system to deny minorities full economic liberty. Brutal torture, kangaroo courts and monopolization of the public sphere by notoriously biased Russian state media have reshaped civil society to fit Russian claims of unanimous support among the newly integrated citizens.
The West’s response has quite simply been incommensurate with steadily escalating Russian claims. It is plausible that Obama avoided harsher action a as a result of the ongoing presidential campaign, in which Trump’s foreign policy hinged on a reestablishment of close relations with Russia and American retaliation would be spun to show the Clinton-Obama camp as a provocative actor. Alternatively, from a realpolitik perspective, the geopolitical standoff can be attributed to Obama favoring localized, domestic conflict when compared with the far-out reality of Western military intervention.
Whatever the roots of the existing stalemate, everything was expected to change following Trump’s election. Given a campaign dialogue characterized by unprecedented amicability towards Putin and a dismissive attitude towards the security of allegedly “free-riding” NATO allies, experts envisaged a general support for Russian Crimea. The public expected a more concrete manifestation of this pre-election rhetoric during the first planned foreign visit of Secretary Tillerson with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on February 16, 2017. To the shock of the geopolitical analysts, Trump calmly issued his support for the reestablishment of pre-2014 borders. Interestingly, Russian sentiment was best summarized by the leader of the Communist left Gennady Zyuganov who said: “Even in the way he talks you can now hear notes of Obama.” Despite radically differing geopolitical stances, the U.S. position on Ukraine did not change between administrations. The American approach to Crimea, it seems, transcends partisan boundaries.
A doctrine of pragmatic, indirect involvement lies behind the third year of continuity in Eastern European policy. With Crimea in particular, this general ideology translates into practice in three key ways: de-escalation, an emphasis on stability, and rapprochement instead of conflict support.
De-escalation is the standard for the United States’ direct engagement in foreign areas. Military action is only warranted in the case of a progressively belligerent state. Since in Crimea a combined total of three soldiers were killed, it is unsurprising the West did not perceive the potential for increasing violence in the annexation. An implicit understanding of this engagement rule is evident in Russian behavior, where an emphasis was placed on “bloodless” combat and incognito deployment adds an extra layer to formal attribution of belligerence.
Secondly, an enduring feature of U.S. (and for that matter West European) Ukrainian protocol is prioritizing stability over any other feature of government. When diplomatic measures, such as the Minsk II agreements, are finally taken, stable but contested areas are generally ignored. The primary focus of any negotiation to stop armed conflict.Areas that function stably despite their questionable territorial basis are left alone. Putin’s ability to control an area the size of Switzerland within 24 days is diplomatically advantageous and military remarkable, especially when compared with the nearby Donetsk war theater where armed conflict is entering its third year. Putin capitalized massively on this rapid assumption of power. The three month delay between taking Sevastopol and the first round of international negotiations allowed him to approach the table with Crimea as a fait accompli, a functioning, albeit illegal, creation that would be glossed over due to Western focus on areas with no governing structures whatsoever.
Finally, it must be observed that since the breakdown of the USSR, America has actively pulled Russia’s neighbors closer to the EU in lieu of supporting them for conflict and resilience against potential Russian expansionism (American military presence does not extend past Poland). Not once in the entire Ukrainian war (in Crimea or Donetsk) has the West publicly proposed an even remotely defensive measure such as closer cooperation with Ukrainian intelligence or logistical/non-military support. Instead, the nexus of EU diplomacy has been Kiev, where geopolitical efforts have been diverted towards building European ties with various institutions in the stable part of the state. Russia is well aware of the stickiness of direct engagement in the region and is therefore unafraid to employ its military power more boldly. So long as Putin avoids diplomatic centers with strong international presence, Eastern Europe is his playground.
These three time-specific takeaways also fit into a grander context of overarching diplomatic trends. Putin has toed the American policy line in Eastern Europe with undeniable skill. Despite adept Western use of sanctions, which rendered the Russian occupations economically unfeasible, Putin has nevertheless found enough leeway to influence the region to and consolidate his support domestically.
Furthermore, Putin’s ability to maintain power in an increasingly Westernized region is nothing new, and his current understanding of Western intentions may be based on earlier experiments in Georgia. A testament to the Balkan link is the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs’ statement from the eighth anniversary of the Georgian War in August, 2016 that “After not getting a tough enough and unequivocal response by the international community for its’ aggression against Georgia, Russia chose its next target—Ukraine.” At the end of February, Putin cited Crimea as a success on the third anniversary of the Special Forces Day, a holiday that coincidentally, was established in 2014 when the very same troops assumed control of that part of Ukraine. There is very little indication that Putin will change anytime soon and he appears confident in his interpretation of Western strategy.
The American and EU approach to Russia is underscored by caution and reservation. Ukraine will always border a state that projects power on a limited geographic scale but with uncompromising strength. By sheer virtue of its distance the US can only procure limited influence in a distant region influence in a limited extent, and European states copy this restricted involvement. The imbalanced authority of the two superpowers thereby condemns the West to a long game if Russian expansionism is to be at all restrained. With no means to directly influence the Ukrainian situation the only plausible approach seems to be push for peace and stability-promoting measures. While this policy can do little to normalize the politics of occupied territories and even less to oust Russian control of the usurped areas, it fulfills the purpose of bringing Russian actions to a halt and confining them to strictly defined pockets.
In this sense, stagnation is the best possible state of affairs and the establishment of a status quo is meant to allow Kiev to set domestic issues aside and turn to building stronger ties with the West. Because such a framework gives Russia a free hand to perpetuate its authoritarian and degrading conduct on Ukrainian soil, the West cannot tout each ceasefire with Russia as a step towards peace and instead can merely acquiesce to the status quo as a lesser evil. Whether the quiet acceptance of an ethically deplorable stalemate in hope of an internal solution proves to be a successful gamble remains to be seen. Currently, the waiting time for an answer appears to be indefinite.