Crimea for ever?

By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

Celebrations in Crimea lasted 4 full days and included a visit of president Putin. In Moscow, there were a few flags, but no official celebrations. Seemingly, the Kremlin wants to show that Crimea is just another member of the Federation, no more no less.

Five years after Crimea’s annexation, 13,5 billion euros have been officially spent to show the difference between the Russian and the Ukrainian period, when autonomy had been cancelled and the peninsula felt low on Kiev’s agenda. Its interest for the Tatars was mostly due to the hope that their return would dilute Russian influence, even if they did not speak Ukrainian.

Logically, Putin’s speech in Simferopol emphasised Moscow’s successful efforts to integrate the peninsula into the Federation and to resist Kiev’s attempts to sabotage its economy. This includes the construction of infrastructures connecting directly Crimea with the Russian mainland (the most spectacular being the bridge across the Kerch Strait and a newly opened passenger airport) and ensuring energy security thanks to the construction of two power stations inaugurated by Putin during his visit.

Of course, he made no references to the consequences of the operation in Crimea – the antagonistic relations between Russia and the West. Despite the Kremlin’s diplomatic efforts, the 2014 referendum, that resulted in the “return” of Crimea to Russia, has never been internationally recognised. In fact, the Ukraine’s Russian adventure paved the way to the tensest period since the Cold War ended. The most spectacular chapter came when the US and the EU imposed sanctions against companies and individuals allegedly involved in the intervention in Crimea, its administration and its development under Moscow’s rule. Sanctions have been added to sanctions during these 5 years, affecting circles deemed close to Putin by American services or introduced in later episodes of Russian bad behaviour. The latest being sanctions against people involved in the seizure of 3 Ukrainian ships in the Azov Sea; in 2017, for interfering in the American presidential elections.

On EU side, the sanctions have been adopted reluctantly – former president Obama declared that he had to call Angela Merkel personally to convince her to follow Washington’s lead, leading her to make pressure on her reluctant EU partners to impose EU sanctions. Contrary to the US, European companies and producers were due to suffer. More importantly, the Europeans never believed in sanctions as a political tool. History shows that they work only if the economy of the sanctioned country is heavily dependent on those imposing them, and if sanctions are supported from inside, as it was the case for ending apartheid in South Africa. This was certainly not the case for Russia, even if the sanctions are biting and are officially recognised as a burden to the development of the country. But once the sanctions were imposed by EU, nobody saw how to lift them and they continue to run like a chicken without head. Hence the 18 March face-saving statement of Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, that the Union would continue to condemn Russia’s “violation of international law” in Crimea. She also condemned Russia’s “systematic human rights violations” against Crimean Tatars.

Since the start of the EU sanctions, that ruined efforts to restart a new cooperation, the Russians have said that they would welcomed any EU proposals to end the crisis but that it is up to those who impose sanctions to come with proposals to lift them. For more than a year now, the Kremlin has adopted a laisser-faire attitude, considering that serious discussions can be start before the formation of a new Commission following the May 2019 European elections and the Ukrainian presidential elections on 31 March.

Towards Russia, as in other dossiers, the absence of a real common policy makes the EU is cruelly unadjusted to the world’s complexity. In the Ukrainian case, it means that the relations between EU and Russia will continue to depend on American power games with Russia on European territory.

For the moment, Washington is still convinced that sanctions are an adequate way to deal with Russia’s illegal adventure in Crimea and the Donbass – it is a question of time and resolution to impose further sanctions if needed. The EU continues to prolong the sanctions each 6 months, adding a few new names from time to time. Russia knows that the question of Ukraine is there to stay; there might be discussions about the Donbass; but for the Kremlin, Crimea is non-negotiable.

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