What Happened to Crimea?
Before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, any serious threat to undermine post-Soviet territory from Russia was deemed unlikely.
Political analysts, world leaders, and strategists alike, therefore, found the developments in Crimea surprising. Since then, we do not know how far Putin will go to expand his empire … and for how long.
In order to understand where Crimea is today, we should briefly look at why Putin and pro-Russian separatists legitimize Crimea’s separation from Ukraine. Politically, Crimea has had a history of separatism. Former president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of ‘Perestroika’ (“Restructuring”) and ‘Glasnost’ (“Openness”) helped establish localized governments and separatist movements in the Soviet Union.
By 1991, 93 percent of Crimeans sought independence and autonomy from the USSR, naming themselves the Crimean Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Paradoxically, at the fall of the USSR, many Crimean supporters of autonomy did not favor the independence of Ukraine.
In fact, at the time only half of Crimeans supported Ukrainian independence, whereas in Ukraine, 91 percent did. In comparison, the March 2014 referendum reportedly saw an 83 percent turnout, with 96.7 percent of the vote in favor of joining Russia. Estimates report that approximately two-thirds of Russian ethnic majority Crimea considers the annexation as lawful and appropriate.
However, many news outlets contest these “official” results of the referendum. According to the Human Rights Council, turnout was only at about 30 percent, with only half of the votes to join Russia. Analysts debate the validity of the referendum endlessly it seems. It is safe to conclude that the annexation was unlawful, violating international law and national sovereignty.
The Origin of Crimean Annexation
The annexation of Crimea had arrived at an unstable point in Ukrainian politics. More than three months of protest against Viktor Yanukovych’s early signs of pro-Russia presidency, when he refused to sign the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, created fertile ground for separatist rhetoric among Eastern Ukrainians who backed Russia. 130 Ukrainian citizens died in the memorable Kyiv protest surrounding Yanukovych’s impeachment.
It was at this time when protests forced Yanukovych into exile to Russia in February 2014, that Russia annexed Crimea. Following the Crimean annexation, conflicts for separation arose in Eastern Ukraine in the Donbas region. These were some of the most violent conflicts since the Balkans in the 1990s.
Since 2014, the Donbas conflict, also known as the “forgotten war,” has claimed more than 14,000 lives, with almost one third of them being citizens. Crimea, however, is largely untouched by military conflict despite how close they are to the region.
Nonetheless, it is clear that the conflicts in Donbas and Crimea are closely connected; both conflicts are Russian imperialist cases of aggression against Ukraine connected to ethnic prejudice.
Minsk I & II: An Attempt at a Compromise
In light of the annexation in 2014, the Trilateral Contact Group, which included Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), agreed to twelve points to deescalate tension, comprising The Minsk Protocol, also known as Minsk I. Notably, very few of these agreements were kept. By January 2015, Minsk I virtually collapsed and was replaced by Minsk II, which included Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany.
The only difference between these two agreements was that Minsk II added
- (1) an OSCE-observed unconditional ceasefire from 2015,
- (2) an order for the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from the front line,
- (3) the demand for the release of prisoners of war,
- and (4) constitutional reform in Ukraine.
Since Minsk II, analysts describe the conflict as “frozen” because fighting has deescalated and no territorial changes have been made to the region. 2017 saw a number of failed ceasefires; and in 2019, the “Steinmeier formula” proposed free elections on whether they would prefer to belong to Russia or Ukraine, between both “rebel republics”: the Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) and the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).
As of July 2020, arguably induced by COVID-19, Putin and Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, needed to agree upon further ceasefires. One of Zelenskiy’s central tenants of his campaign against Petro Poroshenko was to demilitarize the Donbas region.
In accordance with his promise to the Ukrainian people, Ukraine proposed to send 1,500 police officers from the OSCE to patrol the conflict zone in November 2020. However, the OSCE is only willing to send troops if all sides are able to agree on terms and conditions. The troops will function as a precursor to the fair elections in the region that both Russia and Ukraine seemingly strive for.
Changes In Crimea
I would now like to explore the demographic changes in Crimea since the annexation. An estimated 140,000 Crimean Tatars, the ethnic minority group of Crimea, and Ukrainians have left the peninsula since 2014. Although, we do not have entirely accurate figures because many have left and since returned. Russian military forces persecute Crimean Tatars because of their loyalty to Ukraine but also because of their religious affiliation to Islam.
Notably, only Crimean Tatars and their representative body, the Mejlis, genuinely strive to reconnect Crimea to Ukraine. Accordingly, Russia declared the Mejlis an extremist organization because of the threat they pose to Russian hegemony in Crimea. Many political leaders of the organization are not allowed access to Crimea with the threat of immediate imprisonment. There are more than 100 political prisoners from Crimea, more than 20 Crimean activists who were killed, and more than 20 who disappeared. Reporters announce new cases of human rights violations biweekly; many victims suffer from imprisonment due to allegations of involvement with hizb ut-Tahrir, the international Islamic political organization, whose primary aim is to unite the Muslim community by peaceful means.
Of course, the Russian military does not persecute pro-Russian separatists in this way, hence many see Crimea as an opportunity to grow their businesses and find novel economic opportunities. Therefore, an influx of Russians has replaced those who left including military troops, sailors, soldiers, and entrepreneurs. Some estimates report more than 250,000 arriving on the peninsula since 2014.
The culture of Crimea has also seen significant change. Since the annexation, Russian propaganda continues to infiltrate Crimean television and dominate Crimean media. Wojciech Górecki claims that already in 2017, Russian integration of Crimea was greater than that of Ukraine at any point in recent memory.
Russian media has accordingly not renewed the Crimean Tatar television’s ATR license, disallowing for proper representation and difference of opinion. Interestingly enough, Ukrainian reporting on the Crimean annexation and developments in the region has also declined because of economic and social pressures. Ukrainian news outlets, such as Kyiv Post, are told that the Crimean news story is not relevant and suitable to their audience.
Changes to Tourism
There were also important impacts on the Crimean tourism sector because of the significant number of changes to public transportation. In 2013, 66 percent of tourists came to Crimea by train through Ukraine; in 2015, the majority of tourists came to Crimea by air or sea.
In conjunction, there has been an increase in the cost of living in Crimea because of the partition between many important imports, such as food and energy, which were brought to Crimea by land and now must be imported from Russia by sea or air.
To analyze the various other public sectors that are affected by the annexation is above this brief analysis; the trends vary but tell a similar story: Crimea is experiencing drastic change.
With the demographic and cultural change, there has also been significant economic change both in Ukraine and Crimea. In 2013, Crimea only accounted for 5.2 percent of the Ukrainian population and 3.7 percent of Ukrainian gross domestic product (GDP). Because the situation is still developing, researchers explain that it is difficult to provide reliable measures of the economic impact of the annexation on Ukraine.
Only a few research papers provide data with modern economic frameworks. These estimates suggest that Ukrainian GDP will fall by 15 percent due to the annexation. The question I would like to consider next is whether Crimea will also be hit economically by the separation or whether Russia will be able to lift the Crimean economy.
In order to predict Crimea’s economic prowess, we need to analyze Russia’s economy and Crimea’s impact on it. After Putin’s second term as president in 2008, Russia’s economy was dwindling. In the end, Putin’s economy is largely dependent on the West and sanctions harmed this relationship.
Many countries around the world punished Russia with heavy sanctions, including important economies such as the United States, Japan, Canada, and countries in the European Union like Germany and France. Sanctions included:
- (1) export restrictions on technologies and services,
- (2) blocking property of 14 companies and individuals in Putin’s close circle,
- and (3) the limiting of financing to Russia’s largest banks and energy companies; however, these did not have the desired effects.
As Steven Roserfielde explains in The Kremlin Strikes Back, the Kremlin has made its economic model more “sanctions-resilient” than it was in 2008, “a transformation few analysts grasp.” This is not to argue that the West should end sanctions on Russia, or that they are futile, but instead that Western policymakers should not rely on economic sanctions alone to stop Putin’s power restoration programs or even to rescind Crimean’s annexation.
Russia is no longer an “economy of shortage”; instead, it functions similar to America during the Second World War, with a military-driven economy that slowly, but gradually, raises living standards. Sanctions have failed to influence political leaders in other key international disputes.
This is, for example, why the American attempt to stop the nuclear proliferation of Iran with sanctions was unsuccessful. In addition to these sanctions, Russia was also dislodged from the G8 Group and NATO suspended military and civil cooperation with Russian forces.
Threats and Sanctions
Historically, threats do not amount to change very often. Notably, Russia has seen a number of threats with little results. In 2018, the U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton had called out on Putin to “get out of Crimea and the Donbas region in Ukraine.”
When Russia militarized Crimea in 2018, it also led the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution voicing “grave concern over the progressive militarization of Crimea,” similarly calling on Russia to “end its temporary occupation of Ukraine’s territory.”
However, these were of little avail. Sanctions and threats are not as detrimental to Putin’s ambitions as we may intuitively suspect. In addition, European economies also extensively suffer from sanctions which may influence Putin’s refusal to give up Crimea.
In the words of Roserfielde,
“Western sanctions will inflict pain on the Kremlin, but they also will reciprocally harm the West.”
This led France’s economy minister to call on Europeans to collectively urge Russia for a solution because of the detriment these sanctions are causing to European economies.
It is not clear to what extent the living standards and economy are the most important feature of life to Crimean citizens who support Putin at this moment. It is likely that many Crimean citizens see benefits to being tied to Russian identity and nationality rather than merely the Russian economy. Indeed, “the contest” between the West and Russia, Rosefielde explains, is not in international living standards and economic growth, but primarily in national identity and military power.
This can explain why after Crimea’s annexation in 2014, Putin’s approval ratings went from 54 to 83 percent, remaining stable ever since. Although, some polls indicate that Crimea is suffering. A 2019 poll from Crimea has found that popular opinion toward the Russian takeover of Crimea has dwindled from 67 to 39 percent. Some estimates claim that Crimea’s economy is almost 10 percent smaller since the annexation. The number of Russians who are also subject to stiff legal penalties has quadrupled to more than 700. This does not necessarily harm Putin’s ambitions, however.
As Karen Dawisha explains in Putin’s Kleptocracy, it was never Putin’s intention to serve the public in the first place; the primary function of Putin’s kleptocracy is to take from the public as long as possible.
Future Projects in Crimea
The Kremlin had much to prove after seizing the Crimean peninsula, making it invest more than $10 billion in direct subsidies. Putin invested in major projects including the construction of a highway and $3.6 billion railroad bridge that connect Russia directly to Crimea.
Other attempts at boosting the economy in the region include an 80 billion ruble ($1.2 billion) contract with the Russian billionaire, Arkady Rotenberg, to build museum complexes in Crimea’s port city Sevastopol and two other cities in Russia, Kaliningrad and Vladivostok, with approximately 25 billion rubles designated to Kaliningrad and Sevastopol.
Other projects include the construction of a theater complex the size of 13 football stadiums on Cape Khrustalny by 2023. With these new projects, we can expect Crimea’s economy to increase. However, it is difficult to tell whether Russia will be able to continue to finance these ventures for a number of reasons.
Problems With Reliably Predicting the Russian Economy
Firstly, it is challenging to estimate what Russia’s GDP really is and how much they can spare on investments in Crimea. Only a simple analysis of Russia’s economy would claim that sanctions on Russia and the reduced price of oil will be completely detrimental to the Russian economy.
This is primarily because Russia is more sanctions-resilient, as I argued above, but also because approximately 23 percent of Russia’s GDP is unaccounted for; statisticians merely guess at the likely GDP of Russia rather than ignore it to provide a more probable account of Russia’s economy.
For example, statisticians estimate that Russia sacrificed around 10 percent of its economic output because of the combined 4 percent of reduced oil prices and 6 percent of reduced GDP due to sanctions. However, these estimates rely on assumed GDP values; therefore, our assumption is that Russia is losing this amount of their GDP and it is not entirely clear as to whether these figures are accurate.
Secondly, the impact of COVID-19 on Russia and Crimea further stifle our ability to reliably conclude any economic successes, or lack thereof, on the peninsula. At this moment, reports suggest that the standard of living in Crimea has not improved despite Putin’s promises and billion-dollar investments. In fact, life may have gotten better for a few select billionaires but the population has seen little in return. However, we cannot conclude for certain whether Crimea is financially more advantageous at this point.
The Future — Will Similar Events Happen Elsewhere?
It has been six years since the annexation and many analysts wonder whether similar events will happen elsewhere. In Beyond Crimea, Agnia Grigas looks at this question in particular and stresses that the rhetoric that legitimized Crimea’s annexation can easily apply to the 25 to 150 million Russian “compatriots,” who neighbor Russia. “At-risk” countries include Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Kazakhstan.
However, territorial threats are not exclusive to countries with majority ethnic Russians; threats also include non-ethnic Russians who speak fluent Russian, which includes Ukraine and other formerly Soviet satellite states.
Notably, no further countries have been annexed in the past six years. Grigas warns however that Russia’s “expansionist ambitions” and “neo-imperial aims” are clear from Putin’s compatriot policies. Grigas elsewhere argues that the Crimean annexation is a quintessential example of expansionist strategy disguised by Putin’s claim to protect Russian compatriots.
Notably, we should not be hasty in presuming that Putin will seek to expand elsewhere. We must base these arguments in fact and a careful analysis of the transnational events that are unfolding. As I have argued above, we know that the preventative measures made by the West in the past six years have not helped against Putin’s ambitions. Therefore, if the West is to influence Putin’s neo-imperial aims in the future, the West must come up with new ‒ and more effective ‒ methods.
It is important to pay attention to the developments in Crimea to prevent further developments elsewhere.
We must not make the same mistakes political leaders made with Adolf Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia and his later invasion of Warsaw in 1938. Indeed, we can and should expect similar events to occur today.
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