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Stalemate in Crimea

Five years of international sanctions and Western attempts to isolate Russia have had no effect on the Kremlin's control of Crimea. The stalemate is likely to persist, with the international community continuing to dispute the annexation and not recognizing the peninsula’s current de facto status.

MOSCOW – Five years after Russia annexed Crimea, there is no reason to believe the peninsula’s status will change anytime soon. Today, it is easier to imagine the reunification of North and South Korea – something unthinkable a few years ago – than Crimea returning to Ukrainian control. Although the US State Department still refers to the situation in the peninsula as an “attempted annexation,” the attempt has succeeded. And the West can do nothing about it.

Russia’s actions in Crimea in 2014 prompted international sanctions and Western attempts to isolate the Kremlin. And relations between Russia and the West remain at their lowest level since the end of the Cold War. But the West’s response has had no effect whatsoever on Russia’s position.

Despite international protests, the Kremlin is in full control of the peninsula and nearby areas. It continues to deploy armed forces and build infrastructure there, including a road and rail bridge across the Kerch Strait to connect Crimea to Krasnodar Krai in Russia. Ukrainian ships are punished for passing through the Kerch Strait. And Ukraine and the West, as well as human-rights groups, have been unable to prevent Russian authorities from repressing the Crimean Tatars.

Western sanctions have affected dozens of Russian officials and businesspeople, but have not seriously damaged the Kremlin. And subsequent sanctions, which have indeed hurt Russia’s economy, were imposed in response to Russian support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, not the Crimea annexation. Russia can leave the Donbas at any time and have the most painful sanctions lifted. And, judging from the dispute between Europe and the United States over the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (which, when completed next year, will bring Russian gas directly to Germany), the West seems more divided on further sanctions than it was in 2014.

Attempts to isolate the Kremlin diplomatically have been equally ineffective. Immediately after the Crimea annexation and the start of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin was an outcast at international forums. But things look very different today. 

Although Russia is no longer invited to G7 meetings, Putin is a full-fledged participant in G20 summits. He has received German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Sochi, French President Emmanuel Macron in St. Petersburg, and the leaders of Asian countries in Vladivostok. In July 2018, he had a seemingly cordial meeting in Helsinki with US President Donald Trump, who has said he wants to “get along” with Putin. And no country boycotted the 2018 soccer World Cup in Russia – in stark contrast to the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. If this is “isolation,” it is certainly not costly.

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On the other hand, annexation has not been cheap. According to the prominent Russian economist Sergey Aleksashenko, Putin has allocated $23 billion over the past five years for the development of Crimea – equivalent to three years of government health-care spending for the whole of Russia. Little wonder, then, that 92% of the peninsula’s inhabitants supported Putin in the 2018 Russian presidential election. (Immediately after the annexation in 2014, some 86% of Russians had supported his actions.)

Nonetheless, sanctions have had an effect – not on the Kremlin, but on Russian citizens. The standard of living in Russia has fallen by 11% over the past five years, and economic growth has slowed to 2%. Furthermore, the Russian authorities have adopted unpopular pension reforms and raised taxes to shore up public finances.

As a result, Putin’s approval rating is at its lowest level since 2013, and the country is experiencing its biggest protests in years. Yet the demonstrators do not regard the deplorable state of the economy as a consequence of the Crimea annexation. Moreover, according to a Levada Center survey, almost half of all Russians consider the annexation as a reason for pride.

The post-Soviet space is unpredictable. Hardly anyone could have envisioned a revolution in Ukraine a few days before it began in February 2014, for example. But low ratings and widespread protests are unlikely to pose a serious threat to Putin for now. And even if there were a change of power in Russia, the new leadership would not necessarily adopt a different policy toward Crimea. Leading Putin critic Alexei Navalny, whom the Kremlin barred from running for president, said that if he won, he would initiate another referendum to determine which country the peninsula belongs to. He did not consider the option of simply handing Crimea back to Ukraine.

The stalemate in Crimea is likely to persist. For Putin, who in 2005 called the Soviet Union’s collapse “a major geopolitical disaster of the [twentieth] century,” proclaiming one of its fragments to be a Russian region was a major coup. He will bring Crimea ever closer into the Russian fold, while the international community will continue to dispute the annexation and will not recognize the peninsula’s current de facto status. 

With no solution at hand, the West may need to be patient and take comfort in history. The US did not recognize the Baltic states as being part of the Soviet Union for 50 years. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and the problem resolved itself.

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