The Russian military’s move into Crimea, together with the ongoing tensions in several large cities in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions, demonstrates that the Ukrainian drama is far from over. It is now beyond dispute that the government established in Kyiv after popular protests drove then president Viktor Yanukovych from power in February 2014 has lost effective control over the largely ethnic-Russian-populated region of Crimea. The territory is under Russia’s de facto occupation.
Russia’s unexpected invasion of the Crimean Peninsula is, in many respects, part of a desperate attempt to strengthen its sway over the new government in Kyiv. Moscow’s apparent plan to annex Crimea is not an end in itself. Rather, Russia seems to be acting in a more sophisticated way, and it is essential to read the situation right.
Moscow aims to influence developments in Ukraine by using Crimea and the destabilization it has inspired in the eastern and southern regions to force Kyiv to adopt an entirely new model of governance. Russia’s preferred scenario is federalization (or even a confederated republic), which would grant Ukraine’s regions—especially those dominated by Russian-speaking Ukrainians and ethnic Russians—far-reaching political and economic autonomy. Russia probably calculates that, thanks to its largely unchallenged influence in Crimea and possibly in other regions, it will be able to obtain effective and long-term leverage over Ukraine’s main strategic decisions, including future moves on European integration.
Russia’s Act of Aggression
Despite what Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a recent press conference, Crimea was not seized by a local paramilitary “self-defense” force but rather by a few thousand well-equipped and heavily armed Russian troops. The forces came mainly from the Southern Military District, which borders Ukraine and the North Caucasus, and they had extensive support from the 15,000 soldiers of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
The aggression began on February 23 in Sevastopol, the largest and most pro-Russian city on the peninsula, which has been called the most sacred of the sacred places of Russian imperialism. A rally of a few thousand people, organized by the Russian Front, a radical Crimean organization, dismissed the city’s mayor and elected a new one, who is reportedly a Russian citizen. The demonstrators demanded that the autonomous republic secede from Ukraine and become part of Russia.
On February 27, unidentified armed men entered the Crimean parliament, demanding a special session to determine the region’s future. Under dubious circumstances and, according to Ukrainian press reports, without a quorum, some of the deputies voted to hold an all-Crimean referendum aimed at “improving the status of autonomy and expanding its powers.” They also dismissed the region’s pro-Kyiv prime minister and voted for a new one, who is a member of a radical, pro-Russian political party, Russian Unity.
When several hundred unidentified armed people took control of Crimea’s airports, main roads, local government buildings, and other strategic sites on subsequent days, it became clear that these moves had not been organized by local pro-Russian self-defense groups. Existing Crimea-based paramilitary units are simply too weak and too few in number to carry out such actions. Although Putin and other top Russian officials have long maintained that the armed and uniformed personnel without insignia on the peninsula are not Russian troops, it is now well-established that Crimea was the target of a well-executed, Russian-led military operation.
Ukraine’s Most Fragile Region
Contrary to media reports and Russia’s ongoing attempts at destabilization, the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine have little internal potential for separatism and have long been politically and economically integrated with the rest of the country. Crimea is different. Due to its distinctive ethnic, historical, and social circumstances, Crimea is rightly considered Ukraine’s Achilles’ heel, a place where Russia has long had the ability to play the separatism card.
Out of a population of 2 million, many local residents are retired military personnel or employees of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, especially in Sevastopol. One-third of all of Crimea’s residents were born in various parts of the former Soviet Union and settled on the peninsula after 1944, when the entire population of Tatars, Crimea’s native Turkic ethnic group, was forcibly deported to Central Asia by Joseph Stalin.
In the late 1980s, the Crimean Tatars began returning and resettling in the region. Their return created interethnic tensions but has not led to serious conflict. At present, Crimea is home to 260,000 Tatars, who are the poorest and most socially excluded group in the region.
The small population of Crimean Tatars has played a highly visible and largely constructive role in the ongoing crisis. The Tatars are historically fiercely anti-Russian and constitute the regional force most loyal to Ukraine. Consequently, they are the strongest opponents of separatism. In spite of Russian-sponsored attempts to divide the Tatar community by creating a pro-Russian faction (mainly gathered around the Milii Firqa organization), it remains united and lead by the Mejlis, a representative body for the Crimean Tatar people.
As a result of migration patterns, the diversity of the local population, and geographical separation from the continental part of Ukraine, the region has been isolated from major political and social processes developing in the rest of the country since Ukraine declared its independence in 1991. That has been the case even though 54 percent of Crimea’s population supported the independence of Ukraine in a December 1991 referendum.
Public opinion polls show that around 15 percent of Crimean residents consider themselves “Soviet people” and just 40 percent see Ukraine as their homeland. Effectively, the entire population of the region speaks Russian, including the Tatars and local Ukrainians, the vast majority of whom are deeply Russified. Ukrainian is a native language for just 18 percent of inhabitants of Crimea.
Crimea’s Legal Status
After the formal breakup of the Soviet Union, a strong separatist movement arose in Crimea, rejecting ties to Ukraine and edging toward Russia. Its leader was Yuri Meshkov, the self-proclaimed Crimean president, who aimed to build close political ties with Moscow and to reincorporate the region into Russia.
Ukraine’s then president, Leonid Kuchma, managed to resolve the problem through a policy of restraint. Kuchma carefully avoided using force against the separatists while at the same time offering Crimean elites attractive economic incentives in exchange for their loyalty to Kyiv.
Also working in Kyiv’s favor was the fact that Kremlin decisionmakers lacked consensus, starting with then president Boris Yeltsin, who spoke out strongly against separatism in Crimea. And the outbreak of the first Chechen war in 1994 helped reinforce Russia’s support for the territorial integrity of its neighbors. In the 1997 bilateral Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership, Russia finally and formally recognized Ukraine’s current borders.
Under Ukraine’s 1996 constitution, Crimea was granted autonomous status, including its own 100-member parliament and local heads of government operating under a Crimean prime minister. Formally, the region is called the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, although the prerogatives of its institutions are very limited and mainly apply to economic, social, and administrative areas. The parliament lacks the right of legislative initiative. Moreover, Ukraine’s central government has retained powerful instruments to impact the political situation in Crimea, including a presidential right of absolute veto over any decision made by the Crimean parliament.
According to the Crimean Constitution, the parliament has the right to organize local referenda, but this applies exclusively to issues that are within its competence. The recently proposed March 16 referendum on changing the legal status of the region firmly falls outside the Crimean parliament’s prerogatives, which means that the decision to vote on whether Crimea should join Russia is essentially illegal.
The legal status of Sevastopol is also notable, as the city is not formally a part of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea but is considered one of Ukraine’s 27 regions according to the Ukrainian Constitution. Only the capital city, Kyiv, has similar special status, which allows it to form its own administrative council. Sevastopol retains its privileged rank from the Soviet period, when—as the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet—it was a closed city. Even now, upwards of 15 percent of the city’s 380,000 residents work for the fleet.
Sevastopol’s self-governance is limited by the Ukrainian president’s right to appoint the head of the city administration. Russian politicians and media have regularly undermined the legitimacy of Ukraine’s sovereignty over Sevastopol, rightly claiming that in 1948 the city was administratively separated from the rest of Crimea and subordinated directly to the Soviet central government. However, that change was not approved in the Soviet Constitution, and Sevastopol remained legally part of the Crimean region (oblast).
Following the signature of the friendship treaty and during Kuchma’s presidency (1994–2004), Crimea made strides toward political, economic, and social integration into independent Ukraine. This positive process was halted after the 2004–2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, when Russia decided to enhance its influence in the region.
Moscow’s actions at the time suggested that it viewed Crimea’s internal diversity and unsolved problems as effective tools to influence Kyiv’s strategic decisions. Consequently, Moscow started supporting or creating new pro-Russian organizations, political parties, media outlets, and the like. Russia’s pursuit of this more active policy was accompanied by the growing weakness of the Ukrainian state, which was paralyzed by an open conflict between then president Viktor Yushchenko and then prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Russia’s plans were quite effective. That became particularly apparent in 2006, when several thousand angry Russians from Crimea blocked a NATO-Ukraine military exercise in the region.
After the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election, the new president, Viktor Yanukovych, was able to assert control over the political scene in Crimea. His first domestic visit was to the region’s capital, Simferopol, which was a sign that he understood the sensitive nature of the Crimean issue.
The situation in the region was stabilized by far-reaching changes on the Crimean political scene. Yanukovych appointed people from his native Donetsk to key positions, and the pro-presidential Party of Regions scored a convincing victory in elections to the local parliament in mid-2010, winning 80 percent of all seats. But the key event was the April 2010 Russian-Ukrainian agreement in Kharkiv that allowed the Russian Black Sea Fleet to be stationed in Crimea until 2042 in exchange for a significant reduction in the price Ukraine pays Russia for natural gas (the fleet’s previous lease agreement had been due to expire in 2017).
The Black Sea Fleet holds a very special place among the various Russian political instruments for Crimea. Traditionally, the fleet helps subsidize the Sevastapol city budget, covering up to 15 percent of all revenues. It also helps organize cultural and propaganda events in the city.
Despite the post-2010 stabilization, Crimea remained a region dominated by very strong pro-Russian sentiments throughout this period. To this day, the area essentially belongs to Russia’s cultural and media space. Russian television channels are the main source of information for two-thirds of local residents. Crimea has 555 Russian-language schools and just six Ukrainian-language ones. And ten Russian universities have branches in Crimea, including a large campus of Moscow State University in Sevastopol.
What Is Russia Fighting For?
The Maidan revolution in Ukraine that pushed Yanukovych out of power represented a very serious and unexpected failure of Russian policy toward the country and a personal blow to the prestige of Vladimir Putin. In response to the collapse of Yanukovych’s government in February 2014, Russia decided to intervene in Crimea. This region provided the easiest source of leverage for Moscow against Kyiv and strengthened Russia’s hand in designing Ukraine’s geopolitical future. While Crimea appears to be on course to be fully annexed by Russia, Moscow’s overall objectives may be more complex and sophisticated.
Just as during the Orange Revolution, when the Maidan upheaval broke out, Putin chose to interfere in a highly visible fashion and inadvertently helped polarize the situation inside Ukraine. Once again, the ultimate outcome was precisely the opposite of what Moscow sought to achieve.
The majority of the Crimean population perceives the new Ukrainian government as being controlled by radicals and sponsored by the West. Yet before the revolution, there were few indications of organized anti-Maidan and pro-Yanukovych activities. Absent Russia’s interference in Crimea, it would hardly have been possible to arrange such a conflict between pro- and anti-Russian forces. According to public opinion polls held in mid-February 2014, 41 percent of Crimean residents supported integration with Russia. Crimea’s dependence on water and electricity supplies from the rest of Ukraine and on tourist income have in recent years helped attenuate the region’s orientation toward Russia and improve Crimean residents’ perspective on Ukraine as a whole.
Moscow is using Crimea as a bargaining chip with the new Ukrainian government in order to obtain concessions for pro-Russian circles in the country’s governing political arrangement. Moscow also seeks to influence work on the new constitution that has to be adopted in the coming months, with an eye toward promoting the federalization of the country. Federalization would give some pro-Russian regions in Ukraine the de facto right to block crucial decisions, including future moves toward integration with the EU. If the federalization approach gains traction, Moscow is likely to find it easier to manage Ukraine and to increase Kyiv’s dependency on its eastern neighbor.
In this sense, the situation is similar to the protracted conflict over the Russian-controlled Moldovan territory of Transnistria. It is worth recalling that the most favorable Russian scenario for resolving the Transnistria problem is the federalization of Moldova. Such a model of governance would give Transnistria the right to veto important national-level decisions and would help keep the whole country within a Russian sphere of influence. It seems that Russia is trying to apply the Transnistrian model to its relations with Ukraine.
The adoption of a federal model of governance for Ukraine is not a new idea. It came to the fore most recently during the political crisis between then president Yanukovych and the opposition. Backed by a group of deputies from the Party of Regions and the Ukrainian Communist Party, the idea was also supported by Viktor Medvedchuk, an influential political figure in Ukraine with strong personal ties to Putin and ruling circles in Moscow. Making Ukraine a federal state was also endorsed by Russian politicians, including Alexey Pushkov, the head of the Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Sergey Glazyev, one of the Russian president’s top aides on Ukraine. In an early February 2014 interview in Kommersant, a Ukrainian daily, Glazyev said that federalization of Ukraine “is not just an idea but obvious necessity” and that Ukrainian “regions should receive the opportunity for self-determination in foreign policy.”
A federalized Ukraine would have no chance of integration with the EU and would also have a destructive impact on future structural reforms, which the country desperately needs. According to opinion polls, just 15.8 percent of Ukrainians support the idea of federalization and 61.4 percent oppose it.
Russia Soldiers On
In order to achieve its aims, Moscow has effectively taken Crimea as its hostage and is now playing Ukraine against the West, forcing both sides to agree to Russian proposals. The Kremlin has openly used blackmail and is threatening to start a second phase of military operations in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. This is why Putin asked the Russian Federation Council for permission to use the country’s armed forces in Ukraine and why, in a recent press conference, he did not rule out the possibility that Moscow might eventually see a need to send in its troops.
The ongoing Russia-inspired turmoil in the Ukrainian cities of Lugansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Odessa suggests that Moscow hopes to create alternative centers of power beyond Crimea in order to enhance its influence on both Kyiv and the West. The most promising target is Odessa and the wider Odessa region, where pro-Russian groups may attempt to organize a Crimea-type referendum. Russians constitute 29 percent of the population in Odessa and 21 percent of the population in the greater Odessa region.
At the same time, Moscow is sending signals that might be able to de-escalate the conflict—but at a significant price. This was a clear message in Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent, self-confident speech, in which he said that Russia was open to further dialogue with the West but “without attempts to make . . . [Moscow] look like a party to the conflict” because Russia “didn’t create this crisis.” Moscow perceives the West as divided and reluctant to confront Russia and, consequently, as being sufficiently pragmatic to eventually accept Russia’s solution to the Ukrainian crisis.
Moscow’s successful campaign in Crimea and the West’s weak response has made Putin feel strong. He now has very little room for compromise. Putin has already lost Ukraine once, quite painfully, and he will do everything possible not to lose it again. For the sake of the stability of the post-1991 European order, the very first thing the West should do now is realize that the Crimean crisis is far more important than its regional significance.
Wojciech Konończuk is the head of the Department for Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw.