Crimea: Sink or Swim in Russia’s Waters

Dr. Gayane Novikova
June 20, 2018

The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.
Henry Kissinger


A transfer of Crimea out of the Russian SSR under the Ukrainian SSR jurisdiction in February 1954 became the cornerstone of an international conflict between two sovereign states immediately after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. A long-term high-intensity hybrid war prepared the foundation for the legal, political, diplomatic, and geopolitical confrontations which transformed into a low-intensity conventional war in mid-February of 2014. Tensions reached their peak on March 16, 2014, when the majority of the population of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea voted for independence from Ukraine. On March 18, 2014, President Putin announced a reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation. For the rest of the world this action  was viewed as an annexation of part of the territory of neighboring Ukraine by Russia, and its incorporation into the Russian Federation.

At first glance, these developments can be viewed as analogous to the gradual escalation of the Russia-Georgia confrontation that culminated in the five-day August war in 2008: Georgia lost Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia justified its actions, among other reasons, by reference to its obligation to guarantee the security of Russian citizens in these unrecognized de facto states. Using the Kosovo precedent, Russia quickly recognized their independence, therefore casting them into a free-floating situation. The world reacted to this violation of the international law in a very mild way.

However, Crimea’s cause was absolutely different. Four factors played a critical role: 1) Russia’s historical, political, military, cultural, and identity sensitivity regarding Crimea; 2) Ukraine’s underestimation of all these aspects; 3) the referendum of independence passed by the Crimean parliament in May, 1991, and the concessions made by Ukraine to preserve  Crimea as a Ukrainian territory and to avoid possible tensions with Russia; and 4) the  ethnic composition of Crimea. Furthermore, Crimea became both a test for Russians unity, and a confirmation that Russia can act in violation of international law to defend its national interests even if a threat of serious punishment exists. It also revealed the weakness of the Ukrainian government and its ineffective governance of the peninsula. Finally, Crimea also became a testing ground for the external actors: proponents of  the rule of international law must decide to what degree they can — or cannot — accept an unprecedented change of internationally recognized borders between two neighboring states and, in a broader sense, a new configuration of the European security system. In contrast to its posture vis-à-vis the Russian-Georgian war, the international community acted unanimously: Russia should be restrained and punished.

The most intriguing part of the Crimea conundrum is the Russia — Crimea interaction. This is a core issue of this analysis.


Challenging Ukraine’s Territorial Integrity

In accordance with Article 2 of the bilateral “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation,” signed in 1997, two states agreed to “respect each other’s territorial integrity, and confirm the inviolability of the borders existing between them.”

However, the Russian-Ukrainian tension reached its point of no return by the autumn of 2013. A loudly articulated desire of the Ukrainian leadership to establish the closest relationships with NATO and the EU, a new wave of unrest in Ukraine, and its economic decline — all this was endangering Russia’s strategic interests. Crimea and Sevastopol, in Russia’s strategic calculation, could not be lost to Ukraine, which was ready once and for all to leave Russia’s orbit. In the meantime, two factors have significantly limited Ukraine’s maneuvering space: a continuing hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine and a large and strong pro-Russian segment of the Crimean population. Putin’s decision to use political and military leverage to retain Crimea was well-calculated and realistic.

Russia has not viewed the incorporation of Crimea into the RF as a violation of any bilateral agreements with Ukraine, or as a violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The partial revision of the 1997 Treaty started almost immediately after the annexation of Crimea. In his interview with TV Channel France 24 on December 16, 2014, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov stated: “The Ukraine as we recognize it now is territorially integral from the Russian point of view and should be supported in this form.” Four years later, on January 14, 2018, Konstantin Zatulin, First Deputy Chairman of the State Duma (Parliament) Committee for CIS Affairs, Eurasian Integration and Relations with Compatriots, proposed to denounce Article 2 of the 1997 Treaty. Minister Lavrov confirmed the Russian official view on the next day: “Politically,… we continue to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the boundaries redrawn after the referendum in Crimea, the reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation.”

Factually, Russia has moved the Crimea issue beyond the framework of negotiations with Ukraine about the latter’s territorial integrity. According to Russian officials, further discussions are relevant only in regard to Eastern Ukraine. Interestingly, Ukraine’s Western partners silently agreed with such an approach.


Крым наш!”, or The Power of the Western Sanctions

Immediately after the acute stage of the Crimea crisis, in March and May 2014, the Levada Center — a Moscow-based non-governmental research organization (which was forcibly included in the registry of non-commercial organizations acting as foreign agents) — conducted two surveys in Russia. 1600 respondents were asked whether they were “for” or “against” the reunification of Crimea with Russia: 88% in March and 90% in May were in favor of reunification. The people were ready — to some degree — to sacrifice their well-being for a reincorporation of a very symbolic land into the Russian Federation. They also viewed the federal investments in the Crimean economy, including heavy subsidies for pensions, salaries, medical insurances, etc., as necessary. In May 2014, 48% of respondents indicated  they understood that the West could impose sanctions and that they were ready to tolerate any negative influence of these sanctions.

Two years later, in March 2016, the number of supporters was slightly reduced: 80% still were supportive. This survey indicated that the people were very much concerned about a worsening  economic situation in Russia; however, they did not connect the changes in their living conditions with the Western sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea. In the public discourse only 12% of Russians considered a return of Crimea to Ukrainian jurisdiction.

In October 2015, the Russian government introduced a very ambitious “Strategy of the Socio-economic Development of the Republic of Crimea for 2017-2030.” Defining three possible scenarios — conservative, modernist, and innovative — the Russian government announced: “Owing to the priority of the development of the Republic of Crimea in the Russian Federation, high expectations of the population of the region and a readiness of the leadership of the Republic of Crimea to implement an active social-economic policy, as a basic scenario has been taken  a combination of the modernist scenario (for 2017-2020) and the innovative scenario (for 2021 – 2030)”.

The Kremlin and the Crimean authorities claim that Crimea can be self-sufficient in the foreseeable future, counting upon a flow of benefits after the completion of the construction of a 19-km Crimean Bridge, as well as upon a developed tourism industry. However, is obvious that the unification/ annexation of Crimea has come at a high financial cost. An approved budget for 2018-2020 indicates that the federal government covers about 75% of Crimea’s expenses. They include first of all infrastructure development, welfare, healthcare, and education. Separately, roughly 60-65% of Sevastopol’s budget is also covered by Moscow. Finally, all security and defense-related expenses of Crimea, including those related to the Black Sea Fleet, will be covered by the federal government.

It should be noted that different sources indicate different figures regarding the growth or decline of the Crimean economy after March 2014. It depends upon whether these sources are Russian- or Ukrainian-friendly.

In general, taking into account the cumulative effects of sanctions and fluctuating oil and gas prices, it is not clear how the Russian Federation can implement even a conservative scenario. Besides, the gradually worsening economic situation will definitely affect the lives of ordinary citizens. It will probably reduce their enthusiasm regarding Crimea’s reunification with Russia.


Some Aspects of Being a Crimean in Russia

Article 12 of the Russian-Ukrainian “Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership” ensured “the protection of the ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious originality of national minorities on their territory” and the creation of “conditions for the encouragement of that originality.” When the treaty was signed in 1997, this article referred to the large Russian minority in Ukraine and to Ukrainian communities in Russia.

In 2001, the ethnic composition of Crimea when still a part of Ukraine was the following: 58.3% Russians, 24.3% Ukrainians, 12% Tatars, and 8% — other nationalities. This demographic situation significantly influenced the results of the referendum on independence held in Crimea in March 2014, followed by the incorporation of the peninsula into the RF owing to the tremendous support of ethnic Russians. Ukrainian and Tatar minorities, which constitute 36% of Crimea’s population , mainly were against the reunification with Russia. The Crimean Tatars (more than 225,000 in 1930) were among several other ethnic groups which were deported in 1944 from their lands, as a consequence of being blamed for collaboration with Nazi Germany. Partially rehabilitated in the Brezhnev era, they began  to return to Crimea after the independence of Ukraine; in 2001, their population in the Crimean peninsula reached 248,000. The hostile attitude of Tatars (as well as Ukrainians) toward Russia was understandable; not surprisingly in March 2014, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People called for a boycott of the referendum.

President Putin addressed the issue of the Crimean national minorities in March 18, 2014, speech: “Crimean Tatars returned to their homeland. I believe we should make all the necessary political and legislative decisions to finalise the rehabilitation of Crimean Tatars, restore them in their rights and clear their good name. We have great respect for people of all the ethnic groups living in Crimea. This is their common home, their motherland, and it would be right – I know the local population supports this – for Crimea to have three equal national languages: Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar.”

This reference of President Putin to the minorities problem was important: it aimed to win over their hearts and minds and to avoid their transformation into a “fifth column.” The next step in this direction was the Presidential decree on April 21, 2014, “to rehabilitate the Crimean Tatar population, the Armenian population, Germans, Greeks – all those who suffered (in Crimea) during Stalin’s repressions,” and “to restore historical justice and remove the consequences of the illegal deportation (of the groups) and the violations of their rights.”

However, further developments have made manifest serious complications in regard to the implementation of a transition from Ukrainian to Russian citizenship and in regard to guarantees  of equal rights for everyone in Crimea. In its 2017 report the Human Rights Watch indicated several areas of human rights violations in Crimea. The most critical issue relates to obtaining Russian citizenship, which is a prerequisite for employment and medical treatment. However, a segment of the Crimean population — mainly ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars — never applied for the Russian citizenship and now face difficulties in preserving their Ukrainian citizenship. They exist in a limbo situation: In April 2018, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko proposed a contradictory Bill No. 8297 –“On Ensuring the Rights and Freedoms of Citizens and the Rule of Law in Temporarily Occupied Territories” — as an amendment to the Law on Citizenship. If passed, according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group,  this Bill “would deprive Crimeans of their Ukrainian citizenship for actions forced on them by Russia as an occupying state” (At:

The civil rights groups which have access to Crimea, or are stationed there, report on growing violations of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. In April 2016, the Crimean Supreme Court banned the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People. According to the New York Times, one of the deputy heads of the Mejlis commented that “the formal ban would not change much, as the Russian government has already done everything to obstruct the operations of the body.” By September 2017, several  Crimean Tatar leaders were the targets of criminal prosecutions. The Moscow-based human rights group Memorial viewed the case against one of them, Ilmi Umerov, as “illegal and politically motivated.” Another Moscow-based NGO, Center for Information and Analysis SOVA, which conducts research on nationalism and racism, relations between the churches and secular society, and on political radicalism, provides many examples of the violation of the rights of Crimean Tatars as an ethnic and religious  minority group. Some cases are related to the misuse of counter-extremism measures by the Russian government. Broad violations of human rights were also reported by the office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights (See: “Situation of human rights in the temporarily occupied Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol (Ukraine). At: ).

The Crimean Human Rights Group, an independent organization, has provided information regarding access to education in the native language in Crimea. According to its research, classes in Crimea were divided as to the language of instruction: 875 Ukrainian classes, 384 Crimean Tatar classes, and 8,965 Russian classes. By 2016 the situation had changed dramatically for the Ukrainian classes: their total number was reduced to 163. Classes in the Tatar language as a language of instruction were reduced to 348. (At:

The range of Russia’s actions in Crimea indicates that the Russian government is not interested in the preservation of the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional character of Crimea. Through  suppression of human rights it forces ethnic Ukrainians, above all, to leave Crimea, thereby turning this region into a loyal Russian province.



The very fact that there are no discussions — to say nothing of negotiations — on the Crimea issue between Russia and Ukraine (as well as in the international discourse) allows us to assume that a long-term status quo has been established. Its main characteristics are the following:

— Crimea has shifted completely into Russia’s domain.

— Russia has secured the city of Sevastopol as a base for its Black Sea Fleet.

— There is a general understanding in Russia that a reunification of Crimea with Russia is an indication of the country’s return to its role as a great power (Derzhava) on the international stage. The Crimea factor per se contributed to the reelection of Vladimir Putin in March, 2018.

— In the mid-term perspective Ukraine can undertake only symbolic actions regarding Crimea.

— The Western sanctions imposed upon Russia further fueled a nationalistic mood among the Russian political and military elites. In the mid-term, these sanctions will continue to unify the Russian population at large: they now, in the mass consciousness, serve to preserve an image of the West as an enemy.

— An  ethno-political conflict is simmering in Crimea. A deterioration of the human rights of Ukrainians and Tatars can lead to the low-intensity conflict that definitely will be used by Ukraine to apply legal, political, and diplomatic pressure to reclaim Crimea. In this regard Ukraine will acquire strong political and diplomatic support from the external actors.

— A militarization of the Black Sea basin continues, thereby challenging and further endangering the fragile European security system.