Annexation Of Crimea And Current Situation In Ukraine

Crimea is a semi-autonomous region of Ukraine; politically linked to Ukraine but culturally tied to the Russian Federation. It is currently the site of escalating tensions between the two states. Between 2014 and 2018, 10,000 people were killed in conflict between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed separatists. The strategically important Kerch Strait is shared between Ukraine and Russia under a 2003 agreement, allowing both free passage and movement in this area that has been the primary source of tension. In March 2014, Russian Special Forces entered Crimea under orders to protect access to the Black Sea. This coincided with a planned trade deal between the EU and Ukraine which would develop Ukrainian gas reserves, meaning Russia could lose one of its most important customers. According to Igor Girkin’s testimony, Crimean lawmakers were coerced by Russian officers into holding a referendum to secede from Ukraine and join Russia. The majority won on March 16 with 80% of the vote. Two days later, Moscow signed a declaration with Crimean officials to ratify secession. Neither the vote nor the annexation have been recognised by the United Nations.

In April, local Ukrainian rebels, speculated to be backed by Russia, took control of town halls and police stations in the east where the population is largely ethnic Russians. In response, the EU issued oil and banking sanctions on Russia after NATO produced satellite imagery of Russian troops in Ukraine as well as an unapproved convoy of supply trucks. After Ukraine attacked a similar convoy, it claimed that Russia was attempting to create a second rebel front to preserve land passage to the Sea of Azov. In May 2014, pro-Western Petro Poroshenko replaced pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych as President of Ukraine, signalling a political shift towards the EU. Yanukovych was forced from power due to mis-management of the budget and abandonment of an EU deal for financial aid to resolve budgetary issues. He fled to Russia after accusations of withholding a more European future. By July 2014 21,000 Russian troops had been stationed along the border, armed with 14 surface-to-air missiles and 30 artillery batteries. US and EU economic sanctions were extended in a bid to end Russian support for local rebels. In response, Russia banned imports of US and European food for 1 year, inadvertently causing a recession. Foreign investment dropped by $75 billion, the stock market fell by 20%, the rouble halved and interest rates escalated. Russia’s foreign policy has an incredibly damaging impact on its domestic economy and yet Putin allows sanctions to continue in order to continue the land grab.

Little changed until November 2018, when Russian ships attacked 3 Ukrainian freighters in the Port of Azov and blocked the entrance by placing a freighter length-wise across it. Russia claimed that Ukraine was trespassing in their waters. President Poroshenko imposed 30 days of martial law and condemned it as ‘an act of aggression’ and declared on national television that Ukraine was ‘under threat of a full-scale war’. Putin retaliated with accusations of staging a ‘naval provocation’ in order to boost approval ratings. As of now, the EU and other Western states have not acted concerning Ukraine. This could set a dangerous precedent for other neighbouring states if Putin continues on the path of territory expansion. However, the EU is also in a difficult position as Russia supplies half of its gas and so is dependent on maintaining positive relations.

Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President on April 22nd, winning the election in a landslide with 73% of the vote. Best known for his work as an actor and comedian, Zelensky has no political experience and his success demonstrates dissatisfaction with career politicians. Promises to tackle corruption and the influence of oligarchs resonated with the Ukrainian electorate. Presidential aides announced forthcoming anti-corruption measures and intentions of peace talks with Russia to stabilise the rebel-held Donbas region (Unknown 2019). Most recently, Putin signed a decree to make it easier for people living in Ukraine’s separatist territories to obtain Russian passports. Worldwide concern has been sparked by November’s developments. Both NATO and the UN Security Council have held emergency meetings concerning the conflict which has displaced over 1 million people. The Kremlin does not acknowledge its role and observes the action as a civil conflict, as reported by spokesman Dmitry Pesko.

Several analysts, including Patrick Greenfield who writes for left-wing British newspaper The Guardian, fear that upheaval is inevitable, as “the diversion of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict into the Sea of Azov is precisely the kind of escalation that has preceded Europe’s past cataclysms.”. Historical precedence could indicate future turmoil but given international dedication to keeping peace, this opinion is somewhat over-reaching. Former British Secretary of State Boris Johnson pointed out that the situation in Crimea is the first forceful annexation and first alteration of European border lines since 1945. Furthermore, concerning Ukraine Putin has disregarded Article 2 of the United Nations Charter (1945), the Helsinki Final Act (1975) and the Russia-Ukraine Treaty of Friendship (1997). Johnson also draws attention to the indigenous Tatar population of the region which is at risk, as well as Russia’s declaration of Sevastopol as a federal city (which has not been recognised internationally). Despite political bias, Johnson highlights these facts which do contribute to the situation and add another dimension to a complex situation.

Is There Historical Precedence

Crimea and Ukraine have had long histories with Russia in its former incarnations as the Russian Empire and the USSR. The Crimean region was annexed by Catherine the Great in 1783, and it remained part of the Soviet Union as an autonomous republic until re-joining Ukraine in 1954. Ukraine remained part of the Soviet Union from 1922 up until 1991 when it was declared independent. There is also precedence for the alleged human rights violations concerning the ethnic Tatar population in Crimea. Under Stalin’s rule, 200,000 Tatars were deported to Siberia and Central Asia in 1944 under accusation of being traitors to the USSR. In 1953, Khrushchev returned Crimea to Ukraine in order to stabilise his own position as leader of the Soviet Union as politicians fought to fill the power vacuum after Stalin’s death. This demonstrates that Crimea has often been used as a political tool by Russia. Russia’s actions in Crimea are not unprecedented either. The Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are recognised by Russia as independent states, however internationally they are considered part of Georgia. In 2008, Georgia attempted to reclaim South Ossetia (initially independent after a war in the 1990s) and Moscow provided troops to drive Georgian forces out of the area.

What Can We Expect to Happen Next?

It seems that the latest developments in November indicate that Russia is intent on keeping Crimea part of the Federation indefinitely. Ukraine’s economic situation is rapidly declining as the annexation continues. The Energy Ministry reports that 'Ukraine has lost 80% of oil and gas deposits in the Black Sea and a significant part of the port infrastructure”. Additionally, Russia, France and Germany have approved a pipeline (Nord Stream 2) which will bypass Ukraine and solidify Russia’s hold on Europe as its main supplier of gas. If this pipeline goes ahead, Ukraine will consequently lose 3% of its GDP and $3 billion in transit revenues.

Then-President of the United States Barack Obama, maintained that 'the proposed referendum…would violate the Ukrainian constitution and…international law'. He joins many other Western states who do not acknowledge the referendum as legal or valid. According to Article 2 of the Ukrainian Constitution, the territory of the state is indivisible and inviolable. Going forwards, Russia could encourage a proposal for an amendment to this Article, or pass a law of their own to declare Crimea a Russian territory. Violation of international law and rumours of alleged human rights abuses have not prompted a more forceful response than economic sanctions, so it is more likely that the sanctions will continue than for critical action to be taken. NATO has given verbal support to Ukraine but no military action has been taken. Instead the organisation has advised that both states should attempt to calm tensions. If Ukraine were to issue counter-attacks, it could warrant a stronger military response from Russia and further loss of territory. International human rights organisations are unable to enter Crimea.

Given the delay between 2014 and November 2018, the timing of Putin’s actions at the Port of Azov is questionable. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is seeking independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, indicating that Ukraine is becoming more independent from Russia’s sphere of influence. Up to 80% of Ukrainian exports pass through the Sea of Azov (Ward, 2018), making it a strategic location. Additionally, Putin’s approval ratings have declined and hit 64 % according to a Russian NGO. A potential outcome is that a weak international response could encourage Russia to annex parts of the Baltic states such as Latvia or Estonia. However, as both are NATO member states NATO, other states would be treaty-bound to intervene. It is more likely that Russia will continue to back the Ukrainian rebels in order to acquire more land.

How Does This Reflect on Russia Constitutionally

The issue at the heart of this crisis is the power of the Russian president. Due to Yeltsin’s intervention in the creation of the 1993 constitution, the president’s control of government and parliament is extensive. For example, the President has control of foreign policy under Article 86, and far-reaching influence on parliamentary actions with a presidential veto their laws and dissolve the Parliament in situations defined by the constitution (Articles 84 and 111). Furthermore, federal laws enacted by Putin in 2000 gave him the power to establish 7 federal districts and enable central control by appointing a plenipotentiary representative to oversee each region. Domestically, there is no opponent to Putin’s actions. Abroad, it seems that most states are unwilling to go against Russia’s veto to intervene in Ukraine. There will never be amendments to the constitution concerning the limitation of presidential power under Putin’s rule as he has built his influence for over two decades. One could suggest that the establishment of impartial bodies akin to the Constitutional Court would be more effective, but his vast network of allies means that such accountability measures would be rendered ineffective. Despite the unlikeliness of the success of these ideas in practice at present, it is still worth asking if Russia should amend its constitution in an effort to be more democratic. Is an oligarchical system in fact the best way for Russia to be governed due to its size and history? Traditionally, Russia has been drawn to male authority figures who are presented as father-like and conventionally masculine, such as Joseph Stalin and Putin himself. If such a figure could be installed and yet prevented from accruing an excess of power and held accountable, Russia could flourish.


The situation is at a stalemate: sanctions are ineffective in convincing Putin to abandon his pursuit of Crimea and no other states will risk endangering relations with Russia by intervening decisively. The illegal referendum for Crimea’s secession is a violation of the Ukrainian Constitution. This posits the effectiveness of NATO and the UN (Ukraine being a member state of the latter) if they cannot support Ukraine when their legal rights are being threatened and violated. Putin’s actions suggest a will to weaken Ukraine by reducing its economic stability, with a view to integrate the whole state into the Federation. With a lack of action from the international community, this could put other states at risk. Bordering states not aligned with the EU or NATO such as Georgia or Belarus could be next to be gradually annexed. Russia already has control over two regions in Georgia. Even without strategic ports or oil reserves like Ukraine, they are opportunities for territory expansion.

01 February 2021
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