Crimea Is the Final Battle for Ukraine

Will Crimea comeback to the homeland?

14 September 2022

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

It started with Crimea and it will end with Crimea.

The grinding war of attrition is into its seventh month with no peace settlement on the horizon. Before the invasion, the issue of Crimea did not top the international agenda. It was not even included in the infamous Minsk Accords and the work of the Trilateral Contact Group, forcing President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to look for new formats to voice the Crimea case loud and clear. 

In turn, Putin legitimised the illegal annexation through false historical narratives, nurturing it with recognition from his authoritarian friends. International actors expressed their traditional concern and regularly condemned the illegal annexation of the peninsula, bearing in mind all explicit/implicit potential threats in the Black Sea region. 

Editor’s Pick: The Ukrainian Counteroffensive for Kherson

The policy of non-recognition, a set of sanctions and the Pompeo Crimea Declaration were not sufficient to change Putin’s stance on Crimea. However, the rules of the game dramatically changed after 24 February. What was thought to be ‘mission impossible’ seems to become a window of opportunity for Ukraine to restore its territorial integrity within the internationally recognised borders of 1991. 

Will Ukrainians finally return what belongs to their country amid the vicious invasion? Are Ukrainian allies on board with this? What’s at stake for the Black Sea region?

Zelenskyy’s Crimea Platform — An Innovative Policy Tool

The key message of President Zelenskyy’s election campaign in 2019 was to bring peace and stop the war in Eastern Ukraine. Having taken office, he promised to return all territories illegally grabbed by Russia only in political and diplomatic ways, exploiting the toolbox of soft-power diplomacy vis-à-vis Russia. 

The attempts to upend Crimea on the international agenda resulted in the launch of the Crimea Platform on 26 February, when Ukrainians celebrated the ‘Day of Resistance to the Occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol.’ Such a unique consultative and coordination mechanism was one of the top-10 achievements of Ukrainian diplomacy in 2021. It is no surprise as, with Zelenskyy in office, Ukraine started to shape a proactive foreign policy strategy, initiating new regional alliances and boosting the new security architecture, which is still underway. Moreover, the strategy for de-occupation and reintegration of Crimea was presented last year to signal to Russia that Crimea is neither forgotten nor abandoned. 

The Platform’s architecture is multidimensional: Heads of State and Government, Ministers for FA, parliamentary assemblies of IO, and thematic working groups supported by international experts. It is focused on long-term objectives, which are to reintegrate Crimea through human rights and sustainable development, strengthen sanctions and provide security in the Azov-Black Sea region. The short-term tracks are the documentation of human rights abuses on the peninsula, particularly towards the Crimea Tatars, and overcoming ecological/economic issues caused by the Russian annexation. 

The outcome is the demilitarisation and de-occupation of the peninsula. The Ukrainian Minister for foreign affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, stressed that the defence of Crimea is a matter of the country’s independence. In essence, ‘the battle for Crimea is a battle for Ukraine.’ 

The Second Summit — Rules Changed

Last year’s First Summit of Crimea Platform on the eve of 30th Independence Day on 23 August was historic and pushed Crimea back to international attention, mobilising Ukraine’s allies and winning new ones. Despite topping the Crimea case on the international agenda, it was not de-occupied before Russia’s second full-out invasion as many countries feared the direct confrontation with Putin, preferring to conduct ‘business as usual.’ 

The Nord Stream 2 geopolitical project is one striking example among many. While Ukraine was honestly fighting on the politico-diplomatic front and doing its internal homework on the de-occupation, Russia was massing troops near Ukrainian borders, which led to a full-scale war with no one being able to avert it in a diplomatic fashion.

Thus, the context under which the online Second Summit took place was quite the opposite to the previous one, as the geopolitical wind had shifted dramatically and the period of the ‘warm bath’ with Russia was finally over. 

The Platform added two long-term tracks — the reconstruction of the peninsula and the legal basis of its status after the de-occupation. It gathered 60 countries and international organisations, including some states of the African continent and Latin America, seeking not only to de-occupy Crimea but also to boost the anti-Putin coalition efforts and return to the status quo of the rules-based order. 

Once again, in the aftermath of six months of vicious invasion, global leaders understood that the initial reaction to the annexation was not enough and allowed Putin to bring the war to the heart of Europe for the first time since the second world war. Then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson acutely pinpointed that Russia turned Crimea into an armed camp, which became one of the ‘launch pads’ for the current assault. 

President of the Republic of Poland Andrzej Duda personally attended the Summit stressing that there is no sense of returning to the 23 February borders and the liberation of Crimea is a must. Then Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi emphasised that Crimea is used as a ‘springboard’ to attack Southern Ukraine, Mykolaiv and Odesa. 

Such views are supported by EU senior officials — President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. The US and NATO position is unchangeable and the signal to Putin is clear — to support Ukraine as long as it takes by providing various help not only to de-occupy Crimea and the other 20 per cent of temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories but also to defend the international humanitarian law and return to the rules-based order. 

Thus, the Platform serves as a precursor of the new security guarantees for Ukraine and the international community but it is a long diplomatic game. However, diplomacy is set to be reanimated at some point and the potential deoccupation of Crimea will serve as its harbinger.

Human Rights Abuse — Crimean Tatars as a Major Target

The situation with human rights in Crimea is similar to what is happening in Kherson and other occupied regions now. Any sign of dissent is cracked down upon in an instant, following the rules of the Russian hybrid warfare playbook. The locals, particularly the Crimean Tatars, are experiencing the nightmares of the ‘Russian World.’ On the peninsula, Russia has showcased a sheer disregard to international humanitarian and human rights laws, showing the West its true totalitarian face. 

According to the Crimean Tatar Resource Center, there are 262 political prisoners persecuted in criminal cases over the occupation period of Crimea, 188 of them are representatives of the Crimean Tatar people. One of the most recent striking cases was the detention of the Deputy Speaker of the Crimean Tatar People’s Majlis Nariman Dzhelialov after his participation in the First Crimea Summit for voicing his pro-Ukrainian position. 

Anyone who dares to speak out that ‘Crimea is Ukraine’ or post their insights on social networks can face five years imprisonment. Those who speak against Russia’s ongoing ‘special military operation’ are incarcerated for up to 15 years for ‘spreading fake news.’ 

All in all, since 2014, Crimea has become a land of fear, terror and persecution, imposed by the occupying power. Forced disappearances, deportation, kidnappings, searches and reports on torture have become a common thing for those who dare to speak their mind against the authoritative regime. The representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the Muslim community and Jehovah’s Witnesses are being constantly suppressed and persecuted. Their religious sites are being destroyed to wipe their identity and humiliate their human dignity. For example, Archbishop Klyment was threatened with criminal prosecution if he did not demolish a Ukrainian Orthodox chapel in Yevpatoria. 

One of the classical features in the Russian playbook is the forced conscription of peaceful residents into the Russian Armed Forces. Furthermore, to erase Ukrainian identity the Kremlin militarised education in schools and kindergartens. The occupying regime promotes service in the army and the cult of war by involving minors in its fascist-style ‘Youngarmy’, Crimea Patriot centre (The Crimean ‘Avantgarde’), Cossack schools to bring up the ‘patriotic’ morale against Ukraine and love for imperialism, closing Ukrainian schools and denying the right to study in the Crimean Tatar language. 

Putin’s self-constructed vision of history and propaganda narratives is expected to be pushed further in the school curriculum as it was witnessed in his open lesson to schoolchildren on Knowledge Day in Kaliningrad this year, where he justified his invasion and denied the right of the Ukrainian nation to exist. Russia will further exploit children in patriotic videos in support of the genocidal wars and encourage those who learn Putin’s speeches by heart instead of poems. 

The forced demographic change is a part of the Russian hybrid warfare as well — those who refuse to obtain a Russian passport are subject to be stripped of their property. Soviet-style resettlement programs are exploited with Ukrainians fleeing Crimea or forcibly being deported to Russia and Russians coming to the peninsula. 

Crimean Tatars have become the scapegoat of Putin’s aggression and are deemed as ‘terrorists and extremists. The Mejlis (the Crimean Tatar Parliament) is banned as well as Crimean Tatar media and organisations that operate in exile. Despite Russian vicious politics, the Crimean Tatar World Congress posted a tweet to support Ukraine and condemn Putin’s invasion, calling it a ‘banditry’. In light of the current invasion, the repression waves with multiple court hearings only intensified, suppressing journalists and lawyers of the political prisoners. 

According to the Head of Mejlis Rafat Chubarov, the Kremlin pins on Crimean Tatars the most severe articles under the Russian Criminal Code: sabotage, participation in illegal arming of the formation, belonging to terrorist organisations, encroachment on the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation. For instance, an activist Enver Krosh is to be imprisoned for 20 years for alleged participation in the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir banned in Russia but legal in Ukraine for private discussions.

The cynical list of Russian crimes in Crimea is, in fact, endless and deteriorates each day amid Putin’s invasion. The question is — will Russia be stopped now and punished for its atrocities? 

Black Sea Region — Charm and Curse

Prior to the illegal annexation of Crimea, the then pro-Russian President Yanukovich signed the Kharkiv Accords, allowing Putin to extend the lease of naval bases in Sevastopol till 2042 for gas discounts, which paved the way for losing the peninsula. Black Sea security was shattered with the 2014 annexation of Crimea — from a renowned tourist magnet, Crimea was transformed into a military base and Pandora’s box, which had been opened on 24 February. 

It is predictable that the ongoing eight years of militarisation of the peninsula poses a threat not only to Ukraine per se but also to regional/global security, particularly the Greater Mediterranean and MENA regions. 

In particular, Putin uses Crimean territory for the Russian Black Sea Fleet to supply weapons to Libya and Syria. Crimea, as a Russian military hub, allowed it to invade large chunks of Southern Ukraine quickly. 

The invasion showcased how the Russian Black Sea blockade can cause the most severe food crisis and economic fallout, which Putin intends to replay again. 

What is more, Russia regularly blocked the Kerch Strait for commercial shipping, thus violating the freedom of navigation principle which leads to disruption of economic activity and negative effects on the Ukrainian and global economy. The incident in the Kerch Strait in 2018 was a warning for the region and another example of the Russian naval projection power. 

Furthermore, in July 2021, Putin signed a decree allowing the National Guard of the Russian Federation to block parts of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to legitimise its maritime aggression. The Crimea and Kerch bridges are another example of Russian aggression as they are exploited to supply the Russian army and are legitimate targets for Ukrainians. 

The Azov Sea has already been turned into the Russian inner lake. Now, Russia is aiming to transform the Black Sea into its military grey zone and establish its energy dominance. One of the key strategic goals of Putin’s invasion is the total control of the Southern coasts of Ukraine so as to dictate his own rules in the region and come closer to NATO states. Thus, the NATO Strategic Concept singled out that the Southern flank should be strengthened. 

As war drags on, the US eyes and a comprehensive strategy to the Black Sea security issues must be sharpened and elaborated accordingly to tackle Russian malign geoeconomic interests in the Black Sea area, which is doomed to cause shockwaves on a regular basis at the crossroads of various geopolitical players, overlapping interests and security dilemmas. 

This war is a defining moment for multiple security issues, Black Sea security is no exception. The emergence of a new regional alliance focused on the Black Sea issues with Turkey as a leader may be possible as the President of Turkey, Recep Erdoğan seeks to dominate the maritime sphere in the Eastern Mediterranean (Turkey Blue Homeland strategy) and stressed that Crimea should return to Ukraine during the Second Crimea Summit

There is no viable solution other than NATO and the EU increasing its presence in the Black Sea basin and cooperation with the Black Sea littoral states versus Russian aggression. There is also a fear of crossing red lines that can lead to further escalation in the sea. The Black Sea is doomed to bring instability and, at the same time, boost international actors to look for new deterrence and defence measures in this complex maritime world.

Everything started and will end with Crimea

In the evening address to the nation, President Zelenskyy reiterated once again that the ‘Russian war against Ukraine and against the entirety of free Europe began with Crimea and must end with Crimea — with its liberation’. The Ukrainian army is pivoting towards this goal, but much depends on the outcome of the Kherson counteroffensive and the commitment of the West to support Ukraine before the winter stalemate, as by and large, Ukrainian success totally depends on Western military supplies.  

Ukraine has already struck deep behind the front lines, destroying ammunition depots and causing panic in Crimea. Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev warned about ‘Judgement Day’ if Ukraine dares to make a move on Crimea. 

But with Ukrainian success in Kharkiv and in the direction of Donbas, support from the Ramstein format and US lend-lease, it seems that apart from the nuclear blackmail and terrorist acts on critical infrastructure Putin has no cards to offer. During the Yalta European Strategy Forum, Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov reiterated Ukrainian demands to deoccupy Donbas and Crimea and not to fall for Russian chimaera peace settlements with compromises on pre-24 February lines.

It should be borne in mind that the annexation of Crimea created a precedent for changing borders by force and the inability of international actors to act accordingly. One of his far-fetched reasons to invade Ukraine was the neutral status of the country, however, it did not stop him from annexing Crimea when Ukraine was officially neutral. 

Thus, the current invasion is just a continuation of Putin’s expansionist aggressive foreign policy and genocidal wars that could be either stopped for good or further appeased, raising stakes and price the West is already paying for peace and stability. The long-awaited liberation of Crimea depends on the outcome of the war and it is not low-hanging fruit. 

The invasion, in general, and the failure of Putin’s blitzkrieg, in particular, gave Ukraine a carte blanche to use military options despite the original politico-diplomatic goal to demilitarise and deoccupy what belongs to Ukrainians.  


Published as part of our own Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

Picture: Taken from www.president.gov.ua (CC BY 4.0)

 

Christine Karelska

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Christine Karelska is a Visegrad Insight Fellow as of 2022. She is also an alumna of the College of Europe in Natolin and the Democracy Study Centre in Kyiv. Her main specialization is the European Neighborhood Policy. Christine was an intern-analyst of the Public Association “Community Associations” in Odesa. Her main academic spheres of interest are security studies, international relations, gender equality and local governance. Currently, she is working as an Advisor on International Relations of the Vice Mayor of Odesa and as an Assistant to the Deputy of the Odesa City Council. Previously, she worked as a Project Manager of the Ze!Women movement aimed at gender equality and promotion of the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska’s projects in the Odesa region.

Newsletter

Weekly updates with our latest articles and the editorial commentary.