H.E. NATALIA GALIBARENKO AND DR ANDREW FOXALL
Five years ago today, Russia annexed Crimea. It was the first time a European state had seized territory from another since World War Two. And it was the second time in six years that Russia had carved up one of its neighbours.
In late February 2014, Russia sent its armed forces – masked and dressed in unmarked uniforms – into Crimea, a strategically-important peninsula in the south of Ukraine. Ukraine’s Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, had already fled the country after being toppled by pro-democracy demonstrators. These armed forces quickly asserted control over the peninsula. Russia swiftly organised a sham referendum in which an implausibly high 95.5% of participants voted for Crimea to join Russia.
Western leaders declared the referendum to be “illegal” and “illegitimate”, and called for “dialogue” and “de-escalation”. But while the West equivocated, Ukraine was dismembered.
With the stroke of a pen, on 18 March 2014, Putin signed a treaty absorbing Crimea into Russia. Putin claimed the annexation was about protecting the rights of ethnic Russians on the peninsula. Instead, it was about Russia’s discontent with the post-Cold War international order, which Putin had famously made clear at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. It was about Russia, resurgent and nationalistic, pushing its way back into the captive states of the former Soviet Union and reversing loses the Kremlin felt it had suffered.
The West did impose sanctions on Russia. The United States was first, and the UK led the EU in introducing targeted measures against individuals and entities involved in the annexation. But these were too little and too late to halt Putin’s expansionist ambitions. In April 2014, Russia launched a war in eastern Ukraine. It is a war in which, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, more than 13,000 people have died. The war continues today, and is now one of the longest running in Europe in almost a century.
Sanctions were later expanded to target specific sectors of Russia’s economy, following the destruction of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile. And these are working – if they were not, it is unlikely that Putin would have spent so much time and effort trying to get them lifted. But while sanctions have raised the price the Kremlin must pay for its behaviour, they have not stopped its aggression on the peninsula or towards Ukraine.
Over the last five years, Russia has exported its oil-fuelled kleptocracy to Crimea. According to the United Nations, opposition voices are silenced, human rights are violated, and organised crime is rampant. At the same time, Russia has dramatically increased the size and capability of its Black Sea fleet and land-based forces there. Its new air and coastal defences mean that it is able to establish an anti-access/area-denial zone covering almost all of the Black Sea – including parts of NATO members Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey.
Russia’s aggression is not straightforwardly military. Ukraine has served as a scorched-earth testing ground for the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare. Moscow’s efforts to wreak chaos and divide societies through the targeted use of corruption, propaganda campaigns, and cyberwarfare were all tested there (as well as elsewhere in eastern Europe) before being rolled out against the West. Ukrainians will vote for their next president later this month, and there is already widespread Russian interference in the election.
If the West is serious about facing down the threat posed by Russia, then it must up its game. The US is leading the way, deploying some of the most potent weapons in its financial arsenal, including measures previously only used against rogue states, terrorist groups, and transnational crime. The EU, in turn, has shown itself willing to expand existing sanctions – last month, eight Russians were blacklisted after 24 Ukrainian sailors and their vessels were illegally detained in the Kerch Strait.
These actions are important, but more must be done. NATO’s presence in the Black Sea should be increased. So too should bilateral military assistance to Ukraine. International human rights monitoring missions should be sent to Crimea, and Magnitsky legislation used against individuals guilty of human rights abuses there.
For all of this, however, the West is just playing catch-up. Its initial response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea was weak, and this emboldened Putin. From Syria to Salisbury, we have been dealing with the consequences ever since.
H.E. Natalia Galibarenko is Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK and Dr Andrew Foxall is Director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society.