What is the myth?
This myth holds that Crimea was always Russian, and that its seizure by Russia in March 2014 simply rectified a historical injustice. As this myth also has it, reaccession into Russia was also a genuine act of self-determination on the part of the people of Crimea – who, after all, are majority ethnic Russian and Russian speakers – through a ‘referendum’.
From the outset, the Russian leadership portrayed the annexation of Crimea as the long-awaited and rightful ‘return’ of the peninsula to its proper home. According to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, ‘… in the minds of people, Crimea has always been and still is an inseparable part of Russia’. Although the referendum to legitimize Russia’s military intervention was in reality a token exercise conducted after the fact and under duress, Putin insisted: ‘We held a referendum in strict compliance with the UN charter and international legislation. For us, the case is closed.’
Who advocates or subscribes to it?
The narrative that Russia simply took back what was already its own captured the minds of many internationally – most prominently US President Donald Trump, who told G7 leaders in 2018 that ‘Crimea is Russian because everyone who lives there speaks Russian’. It was consistent with his previous statement that ‘the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were’.
In Europe, too, a cohort of mostly right-wing populist parties and politicians with strong links to the Kremlin have pushed the ‘Crimea is Russian’ narrative. In Germany, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) concurs with Putin that the move into Crimea was in response to ‘the expression of genuine public will’. AfD representatives, including Bundestag members, visit Crimea regularly despite protests from the Ukrainian authorities. In France Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally (formerly National Front) party, also recited from the Russian script when she said that ‘Crimea was always Russian’. Similar rhetoric came from Italy’s then deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, who denied that the 2014 referendum was a sham and added that ‘there are some historically Russian zones with Russian culture and traditions which legitimately belong to the Russian Federation’.
Foreign policy analysts from the realist and ‘grand bargain’ schools suggest that the Russian violation of international law in Crimea should be forgiven as a goodwill gesture from the West in view of Crimea’s special history and mostly Russian ethnic composition.
In addition, foreign policy analysts from the realist and ‘grand bargain’ schools suggest that the Russian violation of international law in Crimea should be forgiven as a goodwill gesture from the West in view of Crimea’s special history and mostly Russian ethnic composition. Some writers openly suggest such a bargain given ‘well-known sympathies on the peninsula itself’.
Why is it wrong?
Less than 6 per cent of Crimea’s written history (from the 9th century BC to date) belongs to the Russian chapter. Before 2014, Crimea was under Russian control for a total of only 168 years. In fact, Russia is just one of several powers that have aimed to dominate the peninsula. At the dawn of its history, Crimea was a Greek land. It later developed at the intersection of different civilizations and empires. Until the mid-15th century, the peninsula was a space of unique cohabitation between the Khanate of Crimea, Genoese colonies on the coast and the Principality of Theodor (Byzantium) in the southwest. Thereafter, the khanate expanded and became, for over 300 years, a dominant power as a protectorate under the Ottoman Empire. Crimea was an Orient in miniature, with a Turkic-Muslim culture.
Russia invaded Crimea in 1783, as part of a westward expansion seeking control of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The ambition of Catherine the Great was to establish a new Byzantium in Constantinople, with her grandson Constantine as its emperor. Defeat in the Crimean War of 1853–56 temporarily halted Russia’s continuing territorial aspirations in the region by leading to a ban on military arsenals in the Black Sea, although within 14 years Russia unilaterally abrogated this obligation and continued its military build-up.
Imperial Russia and later the Soviet Union were mistrustful of the indigenous population of Crimean Tatars. The Russian policy was one of forced displacements, colonization and Russification to enshrine dominance. The peninsula’s demographics underwent change following the forced outward migration of Crimean Tatars after the annexation of 1783 and the Crimean War. A further major deportation in 1944 marked a continuation of the long-standing imperial practice of expelling native populations and taking over their lands. According to the last official Ukrainian census of 2001, 60 per cent of the population of Crimea consisted of ethnic Russians, while 24 per cent were Ukrainians and 10 per cent Crimean Tatars, the three most numerous groups.
Crimea was part of Soviet Ukraine for longer than it was part of Soviet Russia. Contrary to yet another popular myth – that the peninsula was a gift to Ukraine in 1954 to mark its ‘union with Russia of 1654’ – Crimea’s transfer to Ukraine in that year aimed to improve the peninsula’s economy, then in poor shape because of difficulties over water supply and a scarcity of farmers.
Crimea’s final chapter before its 2014 annexation by Russia was as the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC). A part of independent Ukraine and the only self-governing region within unitary Ukraine, the ARC had its own constitution, prime minister and parliament. Although the Crimean constitution protected the special status of the Russian language, the ARC supported Ukraine’s independence (during the referendum of 1991 on Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, 54 per cent of Crimea’s residents had voted for an independent Ukraine, including 57 per cent in Sevastopol).
Since 1991, no major separatist movement has existed in Crimea. Periods of tensions between Kyiv and Simferopol were mostly related to curtailing the activity of criminal groups and to competition for economic control. Throughout that period, Russia sought to be involved in these dynamics, funding pro-Russian groups and politicians. One of the main drivers of Russia’s policy was that it needed influence to protect its Sevastopol-based Black Sea Fleet, and in that it was successful.
What happened in February–March 2014 was a full-spectrum military operation executed on land and at sea and supplemented by sustained and targeted anti-Ukraine information operations. Finally, when a referendum was held – in effect at gunpoint – on 16 March 2014 to legitimize Russia’s takeover of Crimea, the Kremlin hijacked the principle of self-determination. Public opinion polling prior to Russia’s aggressive disinformation campaign spoke clearly in favour of Crimea remaining part of Ukraine. Yet ahead of the vote, those who supported remaining within Ukraine could not campaign freely. The ballot also excluded the option for Crimea to remain part of Ukraine as an autonomous republic, i.e. according to the constitution in force. Furthermore, the Kremlin substantially inflated voter turnout. While it said that 82 per cent of voters had cast their ballots, a member of Russia’s presidential Civil Society and Human Rights Council reported that turnout was likely to have totalled 30–50 per cent. Election fraud such as multiple voting was also reported.
The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe concluded that the referendum was illegal, as it violated the constitutions of both Ukraine and Crimea. The process also failed to meet European democratic standards or provide for meaningful negotiations between the stakeholders. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) sent in no observers as it also found the referendum illegal. A UN General Assembly resolution underscored the invalidity of the 16 March vote.
What is its impact on policy?
The myth of a Russian Crimea has tempted some Western policymakers to advocate recognizing it as such, especially if this were to be part of a bigger bargain. To recognize Crimea as part of Russia was the solution reportedly advised to President Trump by Henry Kissinger. In a similar vein, Trump’s then National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was pitched a ‘peace plan’ that would lease Crimea to Russia for a term of 50 or 100 years.
Such moves, if realized, would further undermine the already fragile international rules-based order. The argument that Crimea rightfully belongs to Russia overlooks the grave violation of international law committed by Russia, while opening a proverbial Pandora’s box in terms of the revision of borders and possible conflicts in other parts of the world. It also endorses a Russian neo-imperial outlook and the logic of ‘spheres of influence’, both of which wrongfully imply that Russia has the right to act as it sees fit in relation to smaller and weaker neighbours, especially where there is a significant ethnic Russian or Russian-speaking population.
Accepting Russia’s Crimean land grab means undermining the prospects for global nuclear non-proliferation.
To adhere to such views is to lose vigilance over the considerable security risk that the current Russian regime poses for Europe. It is to sustain the delusion that Putin’s Russia could be an ally in countering rising Chinese power on the continent, or a constructive partner in counterterrorism. It also effectively excuses Russia’s key role in five other frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet region. Susceptibility to realpolitik-based arguments likely contributed to the country’s reinstatement as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in June 2019, even though Russia had failed to reverse any of the violations of international law that led to the suspension of its membership in the first place. This illustration of the ability of Russia to act with impunity in turn undermines the mission and credibility of PACE, and the notion of multilateralism as a whole.
Proliferation of the myth also threatens the current sanctions regime, which was introduced after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and is renewed annually by the EU Council. Italy’s former prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, had been openly working towards the objective of lifting sanctions (the current prime minister, Mario Draghi, lowers the risk coming out of Italy, as he is more likely to align with the pro-sanctions core of the EU’s leadership). Meanwhile, in Germany the forthcoming change of leadership that will follow the September 2021 federal election could make that country’s government more receptive to removing sanctions against Russia. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has openly declared the EU’s sanctions on Russia to be unreasonable.
Finally, accepting Russia’s Crimean land grab means undermining the prospects for global nuclear non-proliferation. In 1994 Ukraine renounced its nuclear status. In exchange, the Budapest Memorandum provided assurances from the nuclear powers, notably Russia, the US and the UK (France and China were co-signatories), in relation to Ukraine’s territorial integrity. These assurances were violated 20 years later. The failure of the international community to uphold the commitments it undertakes discredits the process.
What would good policy look like?
It is essential that the EU and the US maintain their commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, and clearly communicate this to Russia. The illegality of the annexation must not be doubted. The global community of nations should maintain the policy of non-recognition of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation, similar to the non-recognition of Soviet control over the Baltic states after the Second World War. It took the Baltic states 50 years to reclaim their statehoods. A similarly long wait is very much conceivable in the case of Crimea.
It is unlikely that in the medium term a continuous policy of non-recognition will compel Russia to stop the militarization of Crimea and return the peninsula to its rightful status as part of sovereign Ukraine. In the long term, however, such a policy will help the West collectively to uphold the foundational principles of the post-1945 world order and international law.
Policymakers should refer to Russia as an occupying power in Crimea, a fact already recognized by the UN General Assembly, PACE, the International Criminal Court and other international organizations and states.
Crimea-related sanctions against Russia should be maintained and properly enforced for as long as Russia continues with its occupation, and stepped up if the situation in the Black Sea deteriorates further. It was disappointing not to see a substantial expansion of European sanctions in response to the Russian capture of three Ukrainian naval vessels at the entrance to the Sea of Azov in 2018, or in response to the persistent disruption of commercial navigation and environmental damage caused by construction of the Kerch Strait Bridge. There has to be much stronger enforcement of the current sanctions regime, violated by many Russian, international and even Ukrainian companies.
Ukraine’s security should be reinforced by improving its naval capabilities, logistics, cyber defence and secure communications. The drastic militarization of Crimea by Russia, and the latter’s unlawful restrictions on navigation in the Sea of Azov, increase the vulnerability both of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to Russian security threats. Russia is investing in access-denial capabilities to create a zone of exclusion designed to restrain NATO’s presence. Russia also uses the peninsula as a base for military operations in Syria. The number of military personnel in Crimea has increased almost threefold since 2013, and there are signs that Soviet-era nuclear infrastructure is being restored. NATO should consider a reinforced presence in the Black Sea and utilize its new Enhanced Opportunities Programme for Ukraine as a vehicle to increase Black Sea security. Ukraine could also be involved in operations under the EU’s PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) scheme.