The Ukrainian Crimea and the clash of liberal democracy and autocracy

Oleksandr Sukhodolia
Ph.D., Professor, Head of Critical Infrastructure, Energy and Ecological Security
Center of Security Studies, National Institute for Strategic Studies of Ukraine

Now Ukraine is on the front pages of world news, but Russia’s aggression is not breaking news at all. The hybrid Russian war against Ukraine has been going on for much longer, than February 27, 2014, the day when Russia captured the Ukrainian Crimea. [i] This aggression has also revealed a range of issues that go far beyond the conflict between the two neighboring countries. Russia violated fundamental norms and principles of international law, bilateral and multilateral agreements, actually challenging the liberal international order.

Firstly, military aggression was just one element of the Russian hybrid warfare. Illegal occupation of Crimea was executed through a combination of the dynamic action of regular Russian army forces together with illegal armed groups and criminal elements whose activities were coordinated by the only plan and supported with vigorous employment of propaganda based on lies and falsifications, sabotage, and terror.

Secondly, the targets of Russian actions became not only military bases of the Ukrainian army or governmental buildings but also critical infrastructure, especially transport and energy. For example, in an energy sector, Russian paratroopers captured critical gas infrastructure: gas production platforms on the Black Sea shelf (Odesa field); and gas compressor station (pumping gas from Strilkovo field in the Sea of Azov) in the administrative territory of the Kherson region of Ukraine.

In result of aggression, Ukraine lost not only people, territory, critical infrastructure. Ukraine lost the prospect of increasing oil and gas production on the shelf of the Black and Azov Seas, estimated at 300 billion USA dollars at the time.

In addition, the insidious Russian occupation of Crimea revealed the West’s unpreparedness to challenge the open attack on international order. The liberal democratic world demonstrated a weak response to Russian blatant violation of international law and its commitments to guarantee Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity (Budapest Memorandum, not mentioning the range of bilateral agreements). Proponents of the autocratic style of governance become excited to proceed in efforts to revenge and defeat liberal democracy. Putin’s ratings of support have risen significantly, and not just among Russians. Autocratic feelings in different countries, even within the camp of liberal democracies, became stronger. Autocrats became confident that advertised by liberal democracy move to the “end of history” is not only stopped but could be reversed.

The further developments around Crimea have demonstrated the signs of even bigger problems. The weakness of liberal democracies’ policy towards Russian hybrid aggression can destroy their foundations. The West’s policy has not prevented Russia, from using occupied Crimea, to increase its influence in the Black Sea region and projecting its power wider.

In response to the occupation of Crimea, the world community imposed sanctions. However, the weakness of the sanctions and the lack of control over them did not stop Russia. The construction of the bridge across the Kerch Strait became an act of Russian occupation of the Sea of Azov, creating the tool to block free navigation and blockade of maritime trade routes and ports of Ukraine. Importantly, and unfortunately, some Western companies took part in the project development and implementation.

The ban on the transfer of technology and investment in Russia’s energy projects in Crimea also did not work out. Rapid implementation of the project to build gas power plants in Crimea would not have happened without the participation of western companies. Russia, not having the required technology to build power plants, utilized Germany’s friendly position towards Russia. Ignoring warnings on Russia’s intentions to build power plants in Crimea, Siemens’ technology has been delivered and installed. The publicity and accusations that Siemens violated EU sanctions resulted in the dismissal of the local director in the Russian Siemens office. Soon, newspapers reported that the company signed new contracts with the Russian government on the supply of gas turbines and achieved agreements to increase the level of localization of the technology in Russia.

The captured oil and gas fields of the Black Sea became not only a source of rent exploitation of Ukrainian deposits by Russia but also a military outpost in the western part of the Black Sea. The captured gas drilling rigs near the mainland of Ukraine became in fact military bases with a permanent presence of Special Forces units and under patrolling of the Russian Black Sea Navy. The rigs are equipped with military reconnaissance equipment for underwater, surface, and air surveillance. Russia is constantly conducting training activities in the region, blocking maritime trade routes and effectively occupying part of the Black Sea.

For Ukraine, this situation creates risks of blocking the sea’s energy supply routes (coal and oil supplies), especially in the event of further Russian aggression. However, such Russian behavior creates challenges for other Black Sea countries as it threaten the security of trade routes. However, there is still no agreed Western position on Russia’s actions in the Black Sea basin. There is no answer on the response to further aggressive actions of Russia, threatening Ukraine or other countries of South-Eastern Europe.

Let us emphasize once again that this is not just about Ukraine. Since 2014, Russia has been pursuing a policy of ousting the West from the Black Sea basin, using Crimea as an outpost and base for wider expansion into the Middle East, Africa, and the Mediterranean. The occupation of Crimea is only part of Russia’s policy of revenge, but very successful from the Kremlin’s point of view. It demonstrates that, instead of a decisive policy and an adequate response to Russia’s actions, the West is retreating. This only inspires autocrats to continue and expand aggressive action against democracy in other parts of the world. The question is much broader, even existential: when liberal democracy finds its readiness to deter revival of autocracy, will it remember the basic principles of existence enshrined in its values? And if not, won’t the losses be too high?

The continuation of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, to defeat a society that has been fighting for the values of democracy for 8 years and resisting the expansions of autocracy, is not only a threat to one country. The lack of support for Ukrainian society and the policy of aggressor appeasement may be the historical turning point, after which the era of liberal democracy will end as inefficient.

[i] The day of effective control over the territory of Crimea according to the European Court of Human Rights.Grand Chamber Admissibility Decision in the case of Ukraine v. Russia (re Crimea) (app nos 20958/14 and 38334/18), ECLI:CE:ECHR:2020:1216DEC002095814 , Council of Europe: European Court of Human Rights, 14 January 2021, available at:,ECHR,60016bb84.html [accessed 9 February 2022]


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