The Crimean Crisis: A Fateful Harbinger

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The events of the last two weeks have been met around the world with a combination of horror, condemnation and shock. Many have gone so far as to suggest that the nature of post-Cold War order has been fundamentally altered, and that the very notions of sovereignty and self-determination on which that global system was centred have been irrevocably damaged. The reality, however, is that the world constructed following the fall of the Berlin Wall has been under threat since 2014. That year, a combination of long term strategic interests and short term political calculations led to Vladimir Putin’s sudden annexation of Crimea – the first attempt in decades to redraw the borders of Europe through force of arms. The ensuing crisis revealed to the world that Moscow had little interest in adhering to the norms of international statecraft, and it was in that crisis’ aftermath that the seeds of the world’s present predicament were sown.

Between 1991 and 2014, Ukraine sat at crossroads. Generally, the Russian-speaking majority in Eastern Ukraine favoured closer ties with Moscow, whereas the Ukrainian-speaking majority in the nation’s west sought a greater alignment with Western Europe and North America. These divisions were brought to the forefront during the Presidential election of 2010, which the staunchly pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych won by sweeping Eastern Ukraine, despite failing to win virtually every seat in the country’s western half.

As President, Yanukovych successfully worsened the situation in every regard – his financial policies were roundly condemned as absurd, tensions between Eastern and Western Ukraine were only heightened and his personal popularity plummeted. To the surprise of no-one, he forged closer ties with Moscow and began distancing Ukraine from her western neighbours – further antagonising those elements sympathetic to Europe. In 2013, events came to a breaking point; with the Ukrainian economy experiencing a crippling recession, Yanukovych was forced to seek external assistance. Two alternatives presented themselves – the first came from the European Union, which promised access to its investment bank and a path to eventual membership. The second offer came from the Kremlin, which offered a $15 billion bailout on the condition that Ukraine refuse the EU’s offer.

There was little doubt as to which package Yanukovych would accept, and Ukraine slid ever closer into the orbit of its Eastern neighbour. Yet this was a bridge too far for those favouring closer ties with the West and, in November 2013, violent protests erupted in Kyiv’s Independence Square. Yanukovych sent in security forces to crack down on dissent, but anger at a man seen by half his nation as Moscow’s stooge refused to abate. In an attempt to quiet the storm, Parliament reduced Yanukovych’s Presidential powers and called for emergency elections, but – despite these concessions – the protests showed little sign of dispersing. The next day, Yanukovych, fearing that his life was under threat, vanished. A week later, he resurfaced in Russia, which began backing its ally by lending covert aid to the Ukrainian movements springing up in the nation’s eastern regions to protest Yanukovych’s dramatic fall from power. 

Russian governments had long had interests in influencing the region now known as Ukraine; as early as the 18th Century, Tsarist governments had been determined to acquire the lands east of Carpathians. Though Moscow’s interests have evolved in the centuries since that time, they have certainly not diminished. The histories of modern Russia and Ukraine have been closely intertwined; the Kievan Rus, the medieval ancestor of the modern Russian nation, was (as its name implies) centred around modern day Kyiv. Many Russians felt a particular affinity with the Crimean Peninsula, which imperial propaganda hailed as the home of Russia’s ancient Greek forefathers. Crimea had been administered under the Russian aegis until 1954, when Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev had transferred political control of the peninsula to Ukraine. What was intended to be a symbolic gesture, however, was frozen in place following the collapse of USSR, when Ukraine and Russia became nations independent of one another. Accordingly, many in the Kremlin saw Crimea as Russian territory in a foreign land, wrongly awarded to another state in the most artificial of manners. 

Economic interests only increased Moscow’s desire to influence the region. Ukraine has always possessed some of the world’s most fertile lands – not for nothing is the region hailed as the ‘breadbasket of Europe’ – and in the early 2000s huge natural gas reserves were discovered below the nation’s surface. Despite having suffered first the economic maladministration of the Soviet Union and then the financial illiteracy of the Yanakovych regime, Ukraine still possessed substantial natural resources and the potential to become a prosperous nation.

Yet the primary reason that successive Russian governments have been drawn into Ukraine is its strategic position. Like most of Eastern Europe and the Russian heartland, Ukraine lies on flat land. While an army’s march from Ukraine to Moscow would certainly not be a pleasant experience, there would be virtually no geographic defences behind which Russian forces could shelter and fortify along the way. In contrast, the Carpathian mountain range is all but impossible to transverse in force, and so forms a natural frontier between the West and the East. If Moscow could not rule Ukraine directly, at the very least it wanted a puppet President – akin to Belarus’ Lukashenko – who would permit Russian forces to enter the country, assume advantageous defensive positions and use the region as a buffer state. 

At the same time, Russian governments since the times of Peter the Great have had a fascination with the Black Sea. Exerting influence on both Anatolia and on the wider Mediterranean basin relies on Moscow’s ability to keep a fleet sheltered on the Ukrainian coast. For obvious geographic reasons, the Crimean Peninsula made for a perfect port, and so for centuries the Sevastopol Naval Base has been the home of Russia’s Black Sea armada. Yet with the fall of the USRR, the Kremlin lost control of that vital maritime centre, and was forced to pay Ukraine for the privilege of using the all-important facility in Crimea. There was the ever present danger, however, that a Ukraine aligned with Europe might stop offering such access, leaving the ships stationed in Sevastopol homeless.

In 2014, these long term political, economic and strategic interests converged with the woes then besetting the Kremlin. The Russian economy was in the throes, and the comically corrupt 2012 reelection of Vladimir Putin had ensured that support for the President was at an all time low. At the same time, the upper echelons of the Kremlin – by now staffed largely by ex-Soviet hardliners – were themselves feeling embittered. The new Russian Federation was only three-quarters of the size of the USSR, and possessed only around half its population. Nor had the years following 1991 been a golden age for the new nation; following the final lowering of the hammer and sickle flag, Russia had endured political chaos, economic annihilation and a bloody border conflict in Chechnya. 

The Russian security apparatus also observed how NATO (the anti-Soviet Cold War military alliance) had not dissolved following the fall of the Berlin Wall, but had expanded eastwards and now counted among its ranks former Soviet states and satellites like Poland, the Baltic nations and Romania. Those countries, delighted by their new sovereignty but fearful it might be threatened again by Moscow, had sought allies (chief among them America) and had acquired them through NATO membership. The West saw this as independent countries asserting their right to independent foreign policies. Kremlin hardliners saw it as the loss of an empire, and were both infuriated and fearful that a pro-European Ukrainian government might make a bid to join the military alliance. Few were more frustrated than Putin, who famously despaired that the collapse of the USSR was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”

These festering grievances prompted action. With the state’s strongest supporter of Russia now in exile, Ukraine seemed to poise to leave the Kremlin’s arms and enter the embrace of the West. Moscow saw that – for the moment at least – the country was in turmoil, sensed that the West was distracted by developing events in Syria and convinced itself action was demanded. At the same time, the Kremlin gambled, as so many regimes have in the past, that a swift triumph on the international stage would shore up support at home by distracting the Russian people from grim economic prospects and domestic political realities. Believing only a decisive throw of the die would defend him from his enemies foreign and domestic, Putin began scheduling secret meetings concerning the future of Crimea – the region of Ukraine most strategically valuable and most closely linked to Russia.

On 27 February 2014, Moscow played its hand. Heavily armed troops donning military uniforms that had been stripped of their national insignias suddenly appeared in the peninsula. Sixty of these soldiers, later nicknamed ‘little green men’ seized the regional Parliament of Crimea, taking around two-thirds of the legislature hostage. The parliamentarians had their phones confiscated and were forced – quite literally at gunpoint – to vote to dismiss the sitting government, install a minor local politician with pro-Russian sympathies as the regional Prime Minister and schedule a referendum on the future of Crimea. The next day, another troops sprang up to take control of the local airport and TV towers.

Though the Kremlin denied any association with the militants, the international community was convinced that the little green men were in fact Russian boogeymen. A week later, almost all doubt was removed when Moscow formally announced it would be deploying troops into Crimea until such as a time as the region had been stabilised. Even had the circumstances been ideal, Ukraine would have struggled to contend with its larger neighbour, but Kyiv, still in chaos following the dramatic transfer of power, never stood a chance. So fell Crimea.

On 16 March, the puppet Prime Minister held a referendum. The people of Crimea were asked to vote on whether they wished to restore the 1992 Constitution (which would effectively mean rejoining Ukraine, albeit with the local Parliament possessing far greater powers) or be incorporated into the Russian Federation. The pro-Russian factions managed to secure an astonishing 97% of the vote – an electoral feat made all the more impressive by the fact that only 23% of Crimeans had expressed support for rejoining Russia the previous year. Five days later, the Peninsula was formally annexed – Moscow had secured for itself the territory of another sovereign state in less than a month. 

As soon as the results of the referendum were announced, the West condemned the vote as a sham. Overnight, the Obama administration’s attempts to “reset relations” with Russia were put on ice, and the two powers rapidly began relying on rhetoric drawn from the Cold War era. Yet Putin was largely proven to be correct in his ambivalence towards the response of the West. The idea of organising a military response to forcibly expel from Crimea the nation with the largest nuclear stockpile on the planet was utterly unthinkable, and so the West resorted to relying on sanctions.

A three-pronged economic offensive was launched – Russian access to foreign credit was restricted, it became illegal to export technologically sophisticated drilling equipment and key members of Putin’s inner circle faced travel bans. Ultimately, however, these sanctions were toothless. The West refrained from truly taking at aim at Moscow’s jugular, the Russian oil and gas industries, since doing so would economically damage multiple major European powers. Germany, a state which relied on the Kremlin for 35% of its energy, and Italy, still struggling to stabilise itself financially following the Great Recession, in particular blocked more punitive sanctions. Oil continued to flow west from Siberia into Europe, and just four years later, Germany approved the construction of Nord Stream 2 — a vast pipeline that would allow Russia to sell yet more natural gas to Western Europe.

The Russian economy did plummet in the years following 2014 – by 2015 its GDP had fallen by around 40%, but how much of this was due to what were (in reality) fairly weak sanctions, is debated; it seems far more likely Russia’s economic woes were more caused by America’s entry into and subsequent flooding of the shale market. By the beginning of 2015, the price of a barrel of oil had almost halved from January of the previous year, devastating the petroholic Russian economy. Yet Moscow could still find the capital needed to keep its military spending constant, and balanced its budget by slashing welfare programmes and public services. Even had Russia not annexed Crimea, it would likely have suffered similar economic devastation and had to tighten its fiscal belt. Buoyed by surging nationalist fervour, however, Moscow was able to weather the political blowback caused by its austerity programmes.

The Kremlin’s Crimean gamble had paid off. The vital naval base at Sevastopol had been secured, the operation had caused virtually no casualties and Putin’s approval rating soared to almost 90%. It is clear now that the events of 2014 only whetted Moscow’s appetite for foreign adventures, while the lack of a coordinated Western response only further emboldened the regime.

Ukraine itself was radically transformed in the annexation’s aftermath. Though foreign observers paid little heed to it at the time, many Russian-speaking residents of Eastern Ukraine underwent a period of soul searching; across the region, more than 5,000 statues of Lenin, icons of Russia’s and Ukraine’s shared Soviet story, were torn down. Though it is ultimately impossible to determine when precisely the shift in the public mood occurred, or even if there ever was such a switch, recent events have shown that most in Eastern Ukraine now feel a greater affinity for their nation than for Russia. At the same time, the Ukrainian Army was radically reordered and, with the help of Western funding, was remoulded into a modern fighting force. While the loss of Crimea was a calamity for Kyiv, it certainly spurred a flurry of activity that has since benefited Ukraine. 

Handwringing with hindsight is a fundamentally futile endeavour, yet time can often offer perspective on prior events. The suspicions which drove the Kremlin to annex Crimea – that Ukraine would be unable to withstand assault, that the Russian people where in lockstep with their leaders’ ambitions and that the West lacked the will to challenge Moscow – seemed to have only been confirmed. In this way was the road to our present predicament opened. 

Global orders ultimately rest on precedents, conventions and generally accepted rules of behaviour. They can not continue when one of the most potent actors in the world arena displays not only a disregard but an active contempt for those principles, and is permitted to do so with only minor repercussions. The post-1991 international system was essentially centred on the supremacy of the nation, a state governed by the people inhabiting it. Always implicit was the idea that every nation – however weak or strong – had a fundamental right to determine its own destiny, and need not fear another state would attempt to forcibly determine its destiny for it.

This order was far from perfect; it struggled with its share of philosophical dilemmas and was, at times, selectively adhered to. Yet it did usher in the most peaceful and prosperous period of human history to date. We must now recognise, however, that it ended in 2014 and that – even if the world has yet to recognise it – we have been living in limbo for the last eight years. Now, only a Herculean effort can hope to resurrect it. 

Kaplan, R., 2012. The Revenge of Geography. Random House

Lacey, J., 2016. Great Strategic Rivalries. Oxford University Press

Stent, A., 2019. Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest. Twelve

Zeihan, P., 2016. The Accidental Superpower. Twelve