Occupation of Crimea: Strategic consequences

Maksym Palamarchuk
Ph.D. (Political Science), Head
Center of Foreign Policy Studies, National Institute for Strategic Studies

The unilateral declaration by the Russian Federation of its sovereignty over Ukraine`s Crimean peninsula has had three main strategic consequences. The first and the most obvious: it was an attempt to alter national borders by force, which is extremely dangerous for the rule-based world order.

Second: the illegal occupation of Crimea violated the agreements that Russia signed to safeguard the territorial integrity of Ukraine and created an iteration of the Alsace–Lorraine question in Ukraine-Russia relations, which implanted a deep mistrust of Russia in Ukrainian society.

Last but not least: the occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and Sevastopol emerged as an essential factor in the escalation of Russia’s hostile policy towards the West. By waging armed conflict in Donbas, by fueling Syria’s refugee crises, by interfering in election campaigns in western countries or by massing troops along the Ukrainian border, the Kremlin has always gotten one positive result for itself. The USA and its allies tend to negotiate with Russia the more urgent crises rather than such intractable and relatively less pressing issues as Crimea.

The perceived “Western threat” is an apt way to explain to Russian citizens why they should make sacrifices for the occupation of a region, where they always used to be welcomed and honored guests. This is also a useful tool for other aspects of the Kremlin’s internal policy. The Russian regime may be more cooperative toward West to some limited degree only in return for concessions including at least tacit consent for the new status quo in Crimea.

However, for the Kremlin, Crimea and even all of Ukraine is not enough. The “security guarantees” demanded by the Russian Foreign Ministry in December 2021 imply Russian military domination on the European continent.

The threat of a chain reaction of armed territorial conflicts in Europe and other parts of the world was contained but not defused in the period starting from March 2014.  Russia has paid a very substantial but not prohibitive price for the occupation of foreign land. The costs however have a tendency to accumulate over time. So far, nobody has tried to repeat this precedent of attempted annexation.

Nevertheless, if the Kremlin succeeds at some point in turning the Western response to the Crimean occupation into something like the US non-recognition policy toward Soviet occupation of the Baltic States in 1940-1991, it could change the calculus for other international players. Some autocratic regimes may believe that tolerating international sanctions and condemnation for some period of time is a fair price for consolidating their power. From this perspective, sending troops to grab a disputed territory from a weaker neighbor would appear a viable option.

The current Russian regime has no exit strategy for Crimea. It simply could not afford any major foreign policy defeat because this would undermine one of the regime’s essential pillars. The Russian people should believe that the Kremlin will always prevail, can, or lest they themselves dare to challenge its grip.

But no political regime is forever. And the issue of Crimea will not go away. That is why the Crimea Platform so important. It is Ukraine’s responsibility to take every possible step to restore its territorial integrity and, by extension, the international order and, ultimately, pave the way for normalizing its relations with its larger neighbor.

The Crimea Platform may not bring about a fast solution. But the necessity for the Russian Federation to engage with it pushes Russia’s elites to acknowledge the fact that the illegal possession of the peninsula is a liability. Only after such acknowledgement the Platform could transform itself from an instrument of pressure to a space for negotiation.

The natural course of events as well as deliberate actions by the Russian state, including anti-Ukrainian propaganda, the conscription of Ukrainian citizens in Crimea into the Russian military and the resettlement of Russian citizens in the occupied territories, even now makes a return to the status quo ante the occupation hardly achievable.

It will be an enormous task to reconcile restoring Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea and Sevastopol with saving face for Russia. No Russian government would be able to survive an unconditional surrender of a territory irrespective of whether or not it would politically appropriate. A change of the status-quo should be accepted by the Russian electorate. Or process simply could not proceed further.

To prevent recurring crises a negotiated plan should combine protecting human rights and honoring the aspirations of the local population, including the currently oppressed Crimean Tatars, while ensuring political and economic sustainability. The Belfast Agreement of 1998 on Northern Ireland or the provision of the autonomous status to Åland by Finland in 1920 gives us hope that even the long lasting disputes can still be resolved when the moment is ripe.

E-mail: maksym.8019@gmail.com

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