Push for Crimea’s liberation despite the war

Julia Kazdobina
Ukrainian Foundation for Security Studies

February 24, 2022 marks the beginning of the Russian aggression for those who have not followed the situation in Ukraine. For Ukrainians, however, the aggression started 8 years ago with the Russian invasion and attempted annexation of Crimea followed by the hybrid Russian occupation of several districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions under the guise of separatism. Lessons learned over the years indicate that no amount of mediation and negotiations is able to resolve the deliberately muddled conflict. Which, unfortunately, means that the score will have to be settled on the battlefield with the winner dictating its conditions to the loser. And all efforts both symbolic and material have to be aimed at making sure that the principles underpinning peaceful coexistence are restored.

Although the occupation of Crimea and the situation in the Donbas had the same roots, namely covert aggression of the Russian Federation, it was the situation in the Donbass that attracted most attention. This was only natural because Crimea had been captured very quickly with the weakened central Ukrainian government unable to put up any resistance. The situation in Donbass, on the other hand, had escalated into a full-fledged armed conflict. This created urgency for the international community and the Ukrainian government to stop the bloodshed by applying the standard approach to conflict resolution, namely impose a ceasefire and work out a diplomatic settlement.

The result, however, was a trap. Russia has learned to game the system by making nonsensical and illegitimate demands backed up by its ability to escalate. And while the parties battled over the unresolvable provisions of the muddled deal, Russia proceeded to move towards its goals of Crimea’s militarization, ruthless elimination of resistance, russification of the population and integration of the occupied territories. Simultaneously it made sure the Donbas wound was bleeding just enough to keep everyone’s attention focused.

Disinformation played a key role. Destructive narratives depicting the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv as a Nazi coup that posed a threat to the predominantly Russian speaking regions became dominant on the Russian state media. They were widely watched in the east and south of Ukraine at that time. The flight of President Yanukovych created a window of opportunity and the Russian operatives were sent in to foment and lead the unrest creating the image of separatism. Russian arms backed up the groundless demands for federalization of Ukraine, special status for Luhansk and Donetsk regions and for the Russian language in Ukraine. A major escalation preceded both rounds of the Minsk negotiations to make the Russian position even more “convincing”.

In the current situation the playbook did not change too much. Lies of the Ukrainian genocide in the Donbass region have been widely circulated in the Russian media to justify the invasion. Request of the so-called separatist republics for protection was a pretext. The narrative of the “Nazi regime” in Kyiv carried over from 2014 and this time was accompanied by demand of denazification. To anybody familiar with the situation in Ukraine it makes absolutely no sense and cannot be met in principle. Demands for disarmament and reduction of the size of the Ukrainian military are clearly untenable given the scale of the Russian threat to Ukraine’s existence as an independent state.

Demands to recognize Crimea as a Russian territory, recognize independence of the so-called republics within the boundaries of the entire Luhansk and Donetsk regions, to protect the Russian language in Ukraine and to make sure Ukraine does not join NATO are as groundless. However, they have wider implications. Their goal is to make it acceptable to violate borders of another state by force and for an outside power to dictate another state’s foreign and domestic policies. That is, to call into question those fundamental principles that underpin peaceful coexistence between states.

Another difference from 2014 is that Russia is no longer hiding behind the backs of proxies. It’s now a clear and overt aggression. Russia continues to openly destroy Ukraine to bomb and torture it into submission. And hopes the west will help by putting pressure on Ukraine to go again for conflict resolution, i.e. to look for middle ground between reality and lies, to meet nonsensical demands that undermine not only the future of Ukraine but also the very principles of peaceful coexistence.

Although it’s clear that any war ends though negotiations it matters what is on the table and what kind of settlement is reached. Just like Minsk, the current situation does not have a middle of the road solution. Any attempt to look for compromises will produce a mix of unacceptable provisions because Russian demands are based in lies and lack legitimacy. Also, just like in Minsk, Russia will still preserve ability to escalate in the absence of a credible deterrent. Minsk situation has also demonstrated the Russia has the ability to wait and make another move when it decides to do so. And this makes its defeat a necessary condition for the lasting peace.

Defeating Russia will take a lot of effort both symbolic and material. While Ukrainians are fighting and the West is helping them with arms and sanctions additional steps should be taken. Continuously pushing for the liberation of Crimea is one of those steps. It is important not only to demonstrate to Putin that his intimidation does not have the desired effect but also to restore the principles undermined by the Russian occupation of Crimea.

One way to do it is for one or several of NATO countries to organize a meeting of the Crimea Platform. Initiated last year, the Platform was supposed to have annual meetings to discuss the situation and to push for liberation of Crimea. For understandable reasons Ukraine is unable to organize anther summit this year. However, for the sake of pace in Europe, the initiative should continue and produce a statement that for Europe to be safe, Russia has to be defeated, de-Putinized, de-Stalinized, Crimea should be returned to its rightful owner and thus the rules underpinning peaceful coexistence respected and restored.

E-mail: julia.kazdobina@gmail.com

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