The West is once again engaging in reprisals against Russia and considering wider sanctions in the wake of the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. The moves come four years after the European Union and United States first imposed sanctions in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
On 16 March 2014, Crimea held a referendum on its status, and two days later it became a constituent part of Russia. The referendum was declared to have achieved an overwhelming majority, with more than 80% in favour of annexation by Russia. But no Western observers were able to monitor the ballot and it attracted widespread criticism. Turnout figures in particular were thought to have been massively inflated, with the number of citizens actually voting for a Russian takeover possibly closer to the 30% mark. Both Kiev and the leaders of the Tatar community urged their citizens to boycott the vote.
The annexation of Crimea, while shocking from a legal and human-rights perspective, should not have surprised informed observers. It followed months of unrest in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, that had spread across the country, tipping the situation from protest to civil war. The dismissal of a compromise deal on 21 February by the leaders of the revolt, the flight of President Viktor Yanukovych and the formation of a so-called ‘unity’ government in fact made up predominantly of anti-Russian and nationalist members, were factors in the increasing radicalism taking hold in Ukraine.
Across the country, statues of Lenin were toppled, provoking a counter-mobilisation in Russian-speaking areas such as Crimea and the Donbas in the east of the country. Sections of society opposed to the pro-Western and nationalist forces that had occupied Kiev’s central Maidan, or square, since November began to seize government buildings, copying the tactics of the protesters in Kiev. Armed militants gained quasi-official status, patrolling the streets and providing ‘security’.
Anti-Maidan sentiment was strongest in Crimea and it is remarkable that Russia’s takeover of the region passed so peacefully given the state of confrontation elsewhere in the country.
Crimea’s history as a part of Ukraine was a short one. It was transferred from Russia to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic only in 1954, at a time when major water courses were being developed from Ukraine to irrigate Crimea’s arid, desert landscape with water from the River Dnieper – bringing Crimea under the Ukrainian republic’s jurisdiction at that time made logistical sense.
At the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Crimea was treated as a special case, being home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol. Sevastopol was recognised as having ‘all-union significance’ and therefore would normally have reverted to Russia when Ukraine gained its independence, given Russia’s role as the ‘continuer state’ of the Soviet Union, assuming the former country’s obligations and privileges.
At the time Russia, under President Boris Yeltsin, did not pursue the idea assuming, one imagines, that the relationship between the two countries would continue as before under the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States.
The events of early 2014 prompted Russian fears that it would be evicted from Sevastopol. On 28 February, soldiers took control of the local airport at Simferopol, under the pretext of protecting Russians in Crimea from Ukrainian nationalism. Although Russia officially denied sending in forces, armed military seized control of strategic areas. As late as 4 March, Russian president Vladimir Putin denied any intention of annexing Crimea, although he stated that residents should have the right to determine the region’s status by means of a referendum.
The status of Sevastopol was just one of the factors behind the Russian annexation. The Kiev protests began after President Yanukovych failed to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in November 2013. With much of the population of western Ukraine clamouring for closer ties with the West, Putin feared that Russia would continue to lose status and influence in a region it had once called its own. Already most of the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe that had severed ties with the Soviet Union were fully-fledged members of the EU and NATO, including the three Baltic States that had been part of the USSR.
If this were not enough for Putin to bear, the EU and NATO appeared to be creeping even closer, right into his backyard. Ukraine’s history as the birthplace of modern Russia dating back to medieval Kievan Rus’ and the two nations’ close – even intertwining – ties throughout their history, make Ukraine a special case. “We are not simply close neighbours, but we are one people,” Putin said. “Kiev is the mother of Russian cities. Ancient Rus’ is our common source and we cannot live without each other.”
Putin perceived that he was being repeatedly snubbed by the US and EU in their pursuit of closer ties with Ukraine, and as the West has repeatedly learnt, Hell hath no fury like the Russian president scorned. The Western powers should have paid more attention to that great diplomat of the 20th century, Henry Kissinger, who said, “Far too often the Ukraine issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the east or west. But if it is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other, it should function as a bridge between them. The West must understand that to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.”
One hundred years ago
2017 marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution, an event that heralded the country's 1918-21 Civil War and a period of terrible suffering for my family and others who lived through it. This blog began as an investigation of current events affecting Jews in Ukraine today and comparing them with historical events from a century ago. It is delving into Ukrainian history as my research for a new book, set in the country, develops.