By Georgios Mavrodimitrakis
This paper examines the situation in Crimea after its annexation by the Russian Federation following the illegal referendum of 2014 and makes assumptions over its future.
Since 2014, Crimea has undergone dramatic changes. Russia’s control over the territory has become absolute despite the clear violation of international law and of several bilateral and multilateral treaties (among them the Great Ukrainian- Russian Treaty of 1997 and the Budapest Memorandum of 1994), whereby Russia became one of the guarantors of Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.
Since 2014, approximately 10% of the 2 million-strong Crimean population has left the region in three waves of emigration. The first wave was politically motivated, and included Ukrainian military and pro-Ukrainian citizens but also the Crimean Tatars, most fearful for the violation of their rights –something which has been revealed to be true: their governing body, Mejlis, was banned as a “terrorist organization” few weeks after the annexation. The second wave was driven by economic factors and took place after the EU and the US imposed sanctions on Russia, causing economic instability and forcing out businesspeople. The last one can be qualified as ideologically driven, consisting of mostly young people and persons disappointed by the Russian governance. At the same time, however, Russia has promoted another narrative, claiming that the population of Crimea is increasing gradually. It appears that Russia has illegally settled over 500.000 Russian residents, mostly civil servants, military and retirees, and provided them with a variety of privileges for their relocation.
On the economic side, Crimea, once a prosperous territory of Ukraine, has now been transformed into one of the most under-developed parts of the Russian Federation. The Western sanctions as well as the instability caused by sporadic fights have critically damaged the Crimean economy. More than three quarters of businesses have abandoned the region, the agricultural and banking sectors have collapsed and tourism, once the channel of essential capital to the region, has almost disappeared. The state has grown on a ballooning scale and direct funding by the Kremlin has equaled the area’s GDP.
The political situation has decisively turned to the direction of authoritarianism. New stricter laws have been implemented (concerning even the alcohol consumption), the local autonomy of the Crimean Tatars has been repealed (like other autonomies in the Russian Federation) and political freedom has been restricted.
Was annexation a mistake?
During at least the last decade, Moscow has turned again its eyes outside of the Russian borders, seeking further influence on its Near Abroad. Crimea is maybe one of the steps taken by Russia to make its presence felt as a global superpower. However, it is debatable whether the adventure in Crimea was worth the financial as well as the material and human costs, as well as the loss of the credibility of Russian state as an ally for peace globally.
Crimea, since its annexation, costs the Russian state 4-5 billion euros annually, in efforts to prevent its collapse due to high inflation and the Western sanctions. As already mentioned, central government funding is of paramount importance, not only in order to restore security and peace but also to implement grand public construction projects, such as the 3,6-billion euro bridge across the Kerch Strait approved by the Russian government in 2015. Moreover, the need to subsidize pensions and to provide benefits to the local population has forced Russia to cancel other prominent projects elsewhere. It has to be noted that all these developments take place in a strained economic moment for Russia, primarily because of the fall in oil and gas prices.
At the same time, Russia is re-militarizing the region: it has almost doubled its military presence, not only in its naval base in Sevastopol but also the land forces in the borders of Crimea. The Russian Black Sea Fleet has been reinforced with 6 new ships, thus becoming an alarming presence in the region, and the Sevastopol base military personnel have doubled (from 12.500 to 25.000 today) since 2014.
The geopolitical implications
Russia tries to provide “legitimacy” to the annexation of Crimea by alleging that it has been a correction of a historical mistake; it accompanies this assertion with various arguments, that include not only political and military goals (protecting Russian interests in Sevastopol) but also humanitarian (protecting the Russian minority in Ukraine).
However, the annexation has been one piece of a puzzle in Russia’s aggressive foreign policy and its reasoning must be seen by two different angles. Firstly, the Crimean intervention can be explained as a domestic reaction to Russia’s unstable economy, especially due to the collapse of oil and gas prices in 2015. In times of insecurity and with corruption scandals in the Kremlin, the Crimean annexation was seen as an effective maneuver to hold back the looming anti-corruption and anti-government unrest. Secondly, the annexation was meant as a signal to the world that the “Russian Bear” is back as a superpower on the global chessboard and that Russia would react in a harsh manner to counter a possible NATO expansion in the area, which Russia considers as its Near Abroad and vital for the preservation of its national interests. Furthermore, the annexation was also intended to prevent the Ukrainian government from getting closer to the West.
Finally the Crimean annexation was also seen as a military project for Russia. The increase of military personnel in the naval base of Sevastopol despite alarming the neighboring states makes the reinforcement of the Russian troops in Syria more efficient.
Can the clock turn backwards?
Is it possible to return to the situation before annexation? The reply is difficult bearing in mind not only the changes already mentioned but also the second Ukrainian war in the Donbass region.
A return of Crimea to Ukraine is very difficult, at least in the near future. Crimea became de facto a part of the Russian Federation and abandoning it, without a considerable return, will be considered treason and damaging for the ruling elite. At the same time, it might put into question the already unsteady Russian foreign policy.
The most realistic scenario is that Russia will continue to occupy Crimea and consider it part of the country, without, however, the recognition of the new status by the global community.
Putin is becoming more authoritarian as time passes, gathering more power and cancelling local autonomies; such developments will return Crimea to the times of Soviet Union, reminding neighbors of the urgent need for action against the Russian aggression. The real question is whether international law applies to all states globally, or whether realpolitik and the will of the strongest, require the reestablishment of influence zones for the super and regional powers. Only when this question is answered can we pursue a viable and secure answer for the future of Crimea.
How Russian Rule Has Changed Crimea, Ilan Berman, July 13, 2017 file:///C:/Users/GEORGE/Downloads/How%20Russian%20Rule%20Has%20Changed%20Crimea%20(1).pdf
Paradise Lost in Crimea , Ilan Berman, September 8, 2015 https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ukraine/2015-09-08/paradise-lost-crimea