In March of 2014, masked gunmen swarmed Crimean government buildings, taking the local airport and raising Russian flags across the region’s capital. The conflict that followed would become the staging ground for renewed tensions between Russia and the United States, in what many view as the beginnings of a quasi-Cold War.
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia over Crimea are not new. Ethnically, Crimea has long since been drawn towards Russia, as the population consists mainly of ethnic Russians, with smaller but consequential Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar minorities. After the Soviet Union fell, many local Russian politicians fought to strengthen the region’s ties to Russia, driven by these historical and ethnic connections. In addition, the Crimean port city of Sevastopol has a major naval base, which houses the Black Sea Fleet, an important unit of the Russian navy. This major Russian presence in Ukraine has strained relations between the two countries in the past, as when pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko insisted that Russia not use the fleet in its 2008 conflict with Georgia.
Russia finally made a move against Crimea in 2014, after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted by a series of violent protests. Separatists, backed by Russian military and intelligence units, seized control of the peninsula, with Russian President Vladimir Putin justifying the intervention as a move to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea. Two weeks later, a referendum was held in which Crimean citizens voted to join Russia. This referendum was deemed both illegitimate and illegal by the Ukrainian government, the European Union, the United States, and the U.N. General Assembly; all of which assert that Crimea remains under Ukrainian sovereignty.
Russia has increased their support for Crimean separatists, supplying them with manpower, funding, and weaponry. Scattered fighting continues in eastern Ukraine despite the implementation of a peace deal called the Minsk Agreements. Negotiated in February 2015 by Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany, the Minsk Agreements demand an immediate cease-fire, amnesty for fighters, and the delivery of humanitarian aid, among other conditions. However, while many officials publicly support the Agreements, loose language, convoluted steps, and conflicting international objectives leave little chance for its successful implementation. In addition, the Ukrainian economy depends on Russia for oil and energy, remaining vulnerable when negotiating with Russia. Crippled by the loss of their eastern industry, Ukraine entered a free trade agreement with the EU, seeking to further integrate its economy with the rest of Europe, as well as simultaneously engaging in a trade war with Russia. Nonetheless, suffering from the continuous violence, the Ukrainian economy shrank by an estimated 10.5% in 2015.
Russian involvement in the crisis is a bold challenge to the dominant democratic nations of the West, and it reveals much about Russia’s foreign policy priorities. While President Putin has publicly revealed no direct motives beyond the protection of ethnic Russians, this move echoes the 2008 Russo-Georgian conflict, in which Russian troops backed local separatists occupied swaths of Georgian territory. Both crises exhibit an increased Russian desire for regional influence, as Russia hopes to effect the policies and actions of neighboring states. Putin, who worked for the KGB before the Soviet Union fell, has long since wanted to restore Russia to its former domination as a global superpower, and reasserting Russian supremacy in Eastern Europe is the first step in achieving this goal. While a military takeover of the region is unlikely, seizing small territories in blatant defiance of Western governments reasserts Russia’s traditional sphere of influence and allows Putin to more easily create puppet states which defer to Russian rule.
Three years after Crimea’s annexation, the situation remains unresolved. The United States has repeatedly condemned Russia’s involvement in the crisis, including placing sanctions on Russia which have targeted major Russian banks, gas companies, and trade agreements. However, many feel these are not significant enough steps. Recently, a piece of bipartisan congressional legislation was introduced in the US Congress, establishing several concrete actions that must be taken to confront Russian aggression, such as increasing the use of sanctions, supplying the Ukrainian government with defensive weaponry, and combating Russian propaganda and disinformation. Ukraine holds an important position as a boarder country between Eastern and Western Europe. The continuing hostilities will determine both the geographical and ideological control that Russia can maintain in the region.