Russia-Ukraine Conflict, the Question of Crimea

April 4, 2022

On March 25, Russian General Staff deputy head Colonel General Sergey Rudskoy announced that the significant reduction of the Ukrainian military potential will now make it possible for Russia to concentrate on the main goal: the liberation of Donbas, while the operation itself will last until “total completion of goals, set by the commander-in-chief.” After the talks in Istanbul, Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin also said that Russia will drastically decrease the military activity in the direction of Kyiv and Chernihiv.

Last week Russian forces started to withdraw from Kyiv. Some saw this as the failure of President Putin’s original plan to capture the Ukrainian capital and install a puppet government, while others just called it “regrouping and repositioning”. And yesterday, Russian missiles struck an oil refinery and a fuel depot in Odesa. This was the first strike on the strategic Black Sea city. The question is whether this was a retaliation to the bombing of a fuel depot in the Russian city of Belgorod on April 1 by Ukrainian helicopters as Russia has alleged or an indication that Odesa would become Russia’s next target? Because if the latter were the case, this would take the war to another level.

Also on Sunday, CNN reported that David Arakhamia, a member of the Ukrainian negotiating team in talks with Russia, said the Russian side has responded positively to Ukrainian positions on several issues and there is a possibility of “direct consultations” between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin, something he said facilitated in part by President Erdogan.

“We announced our Ukrainian position in Istanbul,” Arakhamia said in nationally televised remarks. “And the Russian Federation has given an official answer to all these positions, which is that they accept this position, except for the issue of Crimea.” But Presidential Aide Vladimir Medinsky who heads the Russian delegation at the talks responded that while Kyiv’s position on the issue of its neutral and non-nuclear status has become more realistic, the draft of a treaty between Russia and Ukraine is not yet ready “to be presented at the top-level meeting.”

The status of Crimea is one of the issues at the talks. But understandably, it is not an immediate issue. After the Istanbul talks Mykhailo Podolyak, another top Ukrainian negotiator said, “As for Crimea, it is offered to clearly record the parties’ intention to settle the issue exclusively through (Russia-Ukraine) bilateral negotiations within 15 years.”  Since the Kremlin continues to reiterate its position that Crimea is part of Russia, this must be seen as a way of allowing the parties to focus firstly on the cessation of hostilities and secondly on the future of Donbas.

On May 28, 1997, the “Partition Treaty on the Status and Conditions of the Black Sea Fleet” was signed between Russia and Ukraine.  At the time Ukrainian government needed cash and agreed to lease the Crimean naval facilities to the Russian fleet until 2017. Three days later, the parties signed the “Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation”. [i]Article 3 of the Treaty said:

“The High Contracting Parties shall base their relations with each other on the principles of mutual respect, sovereign equality, territorial integrity, the inviolability of borders, the peaceful settlement of disputes, the non-use of force or threat of force, including economic and other means of pressure, the right of peoples to control their own destiny, non-interference in internal affairs, observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, cooperation among States, and conscientious fulfillment of international obligations and other universally recognized norms of international law.”

In 2010, the leasing agreement was extended by Presidents Medvedev and Yanukovych until 2042, with the possibility of renewal for additional five-year periods. In return, Russia was to offer Ukraine a discount on its gas bills. The deal was announced in today’s devastated city of Kharkiv. It was abundantly clear even then that Russia would not let Crimea go.

On March 18, 2014, President Putin addressed both houses of parliament on the occasion of the signing of the “Treaty of Accession of the Republic of Crimea to Russia”. He referred to Sevastopol as a legendary city with an outstanding history, a fortress that serves as the birthplace of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. He said that, in people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an inseparable part of Russia. But after the revolution, he went on, the Bolsheviks added large sections of the historical south of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine with no consideration for the ethnic make-up of the population. He added that these areas today form the southeast of Ukraine. Then, in 1954, he continued, a decision was made to transfer Crimea to Ukraine, along with Sevastopol, on the personal initiative of the Communist Party head Nikita Khrushchev. He said:

“What matters now is that this decision was made in clear violation of the constitutional norms that were in place even then. The decision was made behind the scenes. Naturally, in a totalitarian state nobody bothered to ask the citizens of Crimea and Sevastopol. They were faced with the fact. People, of course, wondered why all of a sudden Crimea became part of Ukraine… Back then, it was impossible to imagine that Ukraine and Russia may split up and become two separate states. However, this has happened… It was only when Crimea ended up as part of a different country that Russia realized that it was not simply robbed, it was plundered…

“Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.

“We accommodated Ukraine not only regarding Crimea… we hoped that Russian citizens and Russian speakers in Ukraine, especially its southeast and Crimea, would live in a friendly, democratic, and civilized state that would protect their rights in line with the norms of international law.

He later said that Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites continue to set the tone in Ukraine. Three days later he signed the annexation of Crimea into law. His reference to a “totalitarian state” was more than interesting.

The West reacted to the annexation. Russia was expelled from the G8. Rejection of the annexation became a permanent feature of the West’s foreign policy discourse.

In his first major foreign policy speech at the Munich Security Conference a year ago, President Biden accused the Kremlin of attacks on Western democracies. Chancellor Merkel said it was crucial for the West to draw up a joint transatlantic agenda on Russia which, on the one hand, contains offers of cooperation and, on the other hand, clearly spells out the differences. President Macron also urged that the renovation of NATO’S security abilities should involve “a dialogue with Russia”. In brief, NATO having reached the borders of Russia, Europe was more cautious. And it remained dependent on Russian energy supplies. In other words, Europe was prepared to put the annexation of Crimea behind and move on. And it seems that Mr. Putin’s version of Crimea’s history appealed to many.

Writing in the Telegraph, on March 14, 2022, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the West made a “terrible mistake” by letting President Vladimir Putin “get away” with annexing Crimea in 2014.

Indeed, President Putin’s references to Russian “ethnic minorities in former Union republics” and “southeastern area of Ukraine” in his 2014 speech were seen by some as signals of what could follow. And they proved right. But reacting to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the same way it had reacted to the annexation of Crimea was not an option for the West. This was Mr. Putin’s huge miscalculation. Thus, he added to Russian history a dark page that will outlast his reign.

As for the quest for a ceasefire, it appears that the hostilities would not be over until President Putin would somehow be able to claim, “mission accomplished”. Thus, some capitals are being more cautious, putting the emphasis on behind-closed-doors diplomatic engagements, whereas others prefer public diplomacy. After all, this conflict is not just about Ukraine, but also about the multiple interests of others.

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[i] https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%203007/Part/volume-3007-I-52240.pdf

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