On the 24th of August, Ukraine celebrated Independence Day. This year marked 30 years of independence from the Soviet Union, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, “People in Donbas and Crimea will return to us, because we are a family.” This echoes the promise Zelenskiy made to return the Crimean Peninsula to Ukraine at the International Crimean Platform Summit. This summit was created to coordinate diplomatic initiatives and highlight the unsolved conflicts in Crimea. It is a way to keep Crimea on the European agenda and refrain from normalizing the annexation. The summit was initiated in 2020 and this month it was held for the first time. It was attended by several European state representatives. In total, more than 40 countries took part in the summit.
Russia did not participate, but a spokesperson for the Russian foreign minister, Maria Zakharova, responded by saying that those involved were mostly “NATO countries and some international organizations sharing a common delusion that the Crimean Peninsula should be part of the current Ukrainian state and that it can be torn away from the Russian Federation by increasing political and economic pressure on Russia.” She also warned that participating in the summit would impact participants’ relationship with Russia. During Independence Day, the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, indicated a desire for EU membership, “The EU should make a very simple message: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, you are part of us.” The question of EU membership has been at the centre of the Russia and Ukraine conflict.
Part of the conflict is tied to political and cultural allegiances to either Europe or Russia. In 2012, the Ukrainian government started to negotiate with the EU about an association agreement, but in November 2013 the then-president Yanukovych, refused to enter into the agreement. Moving closer to the EU meant moving away from Russia both economically and politically. This led to the Euromaidan movement and protests that resulted in the ousting of Yanukovych in February 2014. In response to this, several pro-Russian protests started to take place in the southern and eastern regions, where Yanukovych had strong support and large parts of the population speak Russian.
There were reports of anti-Maidan protests in Crimea however, the annexation was started by Russian troops that entered Crimea. Supposedly, President Putin gave a “secret order” to annex Crimea in February 2014. Russia was quick to move troops into Crimea. By the 25th of February, a ship with 200 Russian special operations forces arrived in Sevastopol. Two days later, Russian forces pretending to be local militias sieged the Crimean parliament. A referendum was held where supposedly 96% of Crimea’s population voted to join the Russian Federation. After this, the Crimean parliament declared independence from Ukraine and signed an accession treaty with Russia. However, there are reports that local officials were forced to initiate the election by the Russian paramilitary. Russia claims that the local population themselves decided to be reunited with Russia, evoking the right to self-determination.
Crimea was transferred to Ukraine in 1954 during the Soviet era. Russia has traditionally had parts of its navy based in Crimea as it offers access to the Black Sea. The majority of the population in Crimea are ethnic Russians, and there have been reports of Crimean-Tatars being marginalized and ethnically targeted. This has led to more and more people fleeing from Crimea. In addition, the annexation of Crimea broke international law and in response, several countries have imposed economic sanctions on Russia. Since 2000, Russia has lost parts of its sphere of influence when more countries joined the EU. However, Russia has started to gain some of this influence back in recent years as more conservative and pro-Russian politicians have come to power in eastern European countries.
The issue of Crimea is also tied to the war in the Donbas region of Ukraine. The pro-Russian protests in southern and eastern Ukraine, which started after the ousting of President Yanukovych in 2014, turned violent and developed into armed separatist groups. These armed groups were backed by Russia, and some have accused the separatists of simply following a script given by Russia. In 2014, the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk took control of areas that are highly urbanized and industrialized. Roughly one-third of the region was lost to the two separatist groups, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, who declared themselves as independent states. No state, not even Russia, has so far recognized them as sovereign. According to the International Crisis Group, 14,000 people have been killed in the course of the war. Moreover, the Ukrainian government estimates that since the annexation of Crimea, 1.5 million people have been internally displaced in Ukraine.
Today, the fighting in the Donbas region is ongoing and has developed into a “trench-war.” According to the think tank Carnegie, the two separatist republics “now have a power vertical adorned with a pseudo-democratic façade.” There have so far been 29 cease-fires, but none have held. Several peace attempts have been made. The first Minsk agreement was signed in 2014, but was broken after only a few days. In 2015, the so-called Minsk-2 agreement was signed. The agreement was negotiated with the help of the Trilateral Contact Group, which includes the OSCE. The Normandy Format peace process was established in 2014 to work towards peace in the Donbas region. The group consists of representatives from Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France, and has accepted the Minsk-2 agreement as the basis for a future peace process. Representatives of the two separatist groups have also signed Minsk-2. The agreement stipulates among other things, a ceasefire, an amnesty for fighters, the withdrawal of foreign troops and military equipment, and the exchange of hostages. The agreement rests on the assertion that Donbas is a part of Ukraine that needs to return to the government’s control. In turn, there will be a reform of the state towards decentralization and the areas will have temporary special status. After the agreement in 2015, Russia made several far-reaching additional demands, including that Ukraine should have neutrality written into its constitution. In late 2019, efforts were made to revive the Minsk-2 agreement, but no real progress has been made. During the same week that Ukraine celebrated Independence Day this year, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine reported 200 ceasefire violations including approximately 50 explosions.
Ukraine’s desire to highlight the illegal annexation is understandable. Their right to sovereignty was violated by Russia. The principle of sovereignty is the bedrock of international politics and law. Russia claims the annexation of Crimea was the will of the local population. Undoubtedly some parts of the population supported the annexation. However, this does not take away the manipulation and force that Russia employed. How free and legitimate was the independence referendum in Crimea when Russian forces already occupied the peninsula? With the heightened focus the Ukrainian president is now attempting to put on Crimea, we can also expect heightened tensions between EU countries and Russia. This in turn, will likely affect economic and political relationships in the area, as well as make any progress on the Minsk-2 agreement very unlikely. Additional platforms where conflicting parties are actually willing to meet will have to be created or revived for any sustainable solution to be reached. Unfortunately, the Crimea summit is unlikely to become that platform. It is more likely to push the conflicting parties further from the negotiating table and heighten regional tensions.
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