Crimea: Russia's Little Pawn

5 MINS READAug 16, 2016 | 09:00 GMT
Crimea: Russia's Little Pawn
Unmarked Russian military equipment and troops moved into Crimea as the peninsula's leaders sought to join Russia in early 2014. After annexation, Russia continued to move its forces into the region.

The escalation of tensions between Russia and Ukraine has apparently abated for now. The situation was fraught after Russia claimed that on Aug. 6 Ukrainian saboteurs made an incursion into Crimea. But on Aug. 15, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for calm in the region, and Ukrainian security officials have acknowledged a decline in Russian troop movements in Crimea in recent days. Nevertheless, taking stock of the political, economic and security evolution of Crimea is important to gauge the likelihood of another spike in tensions.

Since the Euromaidan uprising in February 2014, Crimea has played an important role in the standoff between Moscow and the West over Ukraine. The peninsula, populated largely by ethnic Russians and long home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, was the site of the initial Russian reaction to the events in Kiev. Shortly after the ouster of then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, unmarked Russian soldiers known as "little green men" took over key air and road facilities in Crimea. Crimean officials expressed a desire to join Russia, and a referendum on the question was organized the next month. After a vote of more than 95 percent in favor (a result disputed by Western observers), Russia formally annexed Crimea on March 18, 2014.

An Equal and Opposite Reaction

Ukraine and its Western backers still hotly contest the annexation, but it went virtually unchallenged by the Ukrainian military. Ukrainian troops who were on the peninsula before the annexation either defected to the Russian military or returned to Ukraine. And though the near-unanimous results of the referendum raised suspicions in the West, the reality is that most of Crimea's inhabitants wanted to become part of Russia. Crimea has traditionally been the most pro-Russian part of Ukraine, and many on the peninsula viewed Yanukovich's ouster as a coup orchestrated and supported by Western powers.

Crimea's turn toward Russia could therefore be seen as a logical counterpoint to Ukraine's turn to the West. Although the Anti-Maidan rebellion quickly spread from Crimea to the eastern and southern portions of Ukraine that have historically been oriented toward Russia, the movement gained a real foothold only in the breakaway territories of Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian security forces are still battling. And though the conflict in eastern Ukraine has been the subject of regular negotiations in Minsk among Moscow, Kiev and the West, Russia has made it clear that Crimea's political and security status is not up for discussion.

Since annexing Crimea, Russia has significantly built up its military presence there. The region was incorporated into Russia's Southern Military District in April 2015, and more Russian troops and military assets have been stationed there, including the advanced S-400 air defense systems deployed Aug. 12. Earlier in August, the chief of staff for Russia's airborne forces said a battalion of Russian troops would be deployed to the northern Crimean city of Dzhankoi in 2017, followed by a regiment in 2018. The deployments demonstrate Moscow's unwillingness to dial down its military presence on the peninsula, despite the sanctions that the European Union and United States imposed on Russia in response to its presence in Crimea.

Crimea's turn toward Russia could be seen as a logical counterpoint to Ukraine's turn to the West.

Post-Annexation Problems

Much as Crimea has become more and more militarized since its incorporation into Russia, the peninsula has also faced several political and economic challenges. Though the majority of Crimea's population supported the annexation, some inhabitants — for instance, many Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority that constituted about 10 percent of the peninsula's population before the annexation — spoke out against it. Several Tatar activists have been arrested for their dissent, prompting many to flee across the border to Ukraine. Some have worked from Ukraine to undermine Russia's hold on the peninsula. In November 2015, they, along with Ukrainian ultranationalists from the Right Sector, played a part in disrupting about 70 percent of electricity supplies to Crimea. The disruption coincided with protests against Russia's treatment of Tatars on the peninsula. Ukraine formally resumed transmitting electricity to Crimea three weeks later, but its flow has not matched levels from before the disruption. Russian generators have made up the difference.

The power supply issue has been just one in a series of events affecting the Crimean economy since annexation. The peninsula's water supplies from mainland Ukraine have been threatened, and the Crimean economy has also been weighed down by the trade restrictions enacted between Ukraine and Russia as a result of their standoff. The economic and financial isolation that has come from U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia has added to these problems. Everyday life has undoubtedly become more difficult for most Crimean residents since annexation. Travel and tourism to the peninsula, meanwhile, have decreased significantly, particularly from Ukraine.

The latest events in Crimea must be viewed with these circumstances in mind. The peninsula has become deeply integrated into Russia's military and security structures, but its political and economic situation has grown more complex. Crimea remains largely dependent on Ukrainian infrastructure, a vulnerability that Russia has been laboring to mitigate.

The threat of Ukrainian subversion on the peninsula — whether factual, fabricated or some mixture of the two — could serve as an opportunity for Moscow to shore up support and stir nationalism at a time when the Kremlin faces its own significant political and economic pressures. Russia's ability to launch major military actions in Ukraine is still constrained, but isolated flare-ups in Crimea or eastern Ukraine could give Russian President Vladimir Putin greater support at home while applying long-term pressure on Ukraine's security forces and government. Crimea's continuing evolution in the security, political and economic spheres will be key to measuring Russia's position and gauging the standoff between Moscow and the West.

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