The fifth anniversary on 18 March of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election two weeks later prompt reflection on the most serious conflict to threaten Europe’s security since the Cold War ended: the smouldering war between Russia and Ukraine.
The most important aspect of Ukraine’s presidential election is its legitimacy. Unlike almost all other so-named exercises in the now-independent states that were under Soviet-Russian rule – with the exceptions of Georgia and Moldova and the Baltic States – this one offers a genuine choice, and its outcome is not predetermined. No matter how limited and fitful its progress in reducing the endemic corruption that is the most insidious element of a legacy of centuries of Russian rule, Ukraine is currently, in crude terms, a more genuinely competitive democracy than either neighbouring Poland and Hungary. And this at a time when two of the more venerable institutions of democracy, the Mother of Parliaments and the US presidency, are lugubrious and alarming spectacles for those who prize democratic freedoms.
The most ominous threat to Ukrainian aspirations to entrench democracy within a genuinely sovereign state is Putinist Russia’s determination to prevent it: to ensure that a deferential government in Kyiv accepts tutelage (one that recognises “Russia’s legitimate security concerns”) or that Ukraine remains unstable and ungovernable.
Five years on from President Vladimir Putin’s use of military force to change another border in Europe, he can be confident that this reconquest of a former Russian possession won’t be undone in his lifetime. Few states have endorsed the annexation of Crimea – which flouted, among other instruments, the Budapest Memorandum that Russia signed in 1994, offering Ukraine security assurances in return for giving up the nuclear weapons it acquired with the break-up of the Soviet Union. Most states, Australia included, see Crimea’s annexation as something to be robustly condemned. But it’s inconceivable any country would risk war with a heavily-armed and bellicose Russia over Crimea.
So, the peninsula’s inhabitants can either accept Russian rule or flee – if they can cross a now-fenced-and-sentinelled border with Ukraine. Imagine that an alt-right group gained power in Australia and began rounding up, jailing and “disappearing” indigenous Australians protesting for recognition of their rights. Despite the Russian authorities’ ban on independent journalists or researchers entering Crimea, we can be confident of what most Crimean Tatars think of their new-old masters. For the second time in seventy years (they were deported en masse by Stalin in 1944, with heavy loss of life) they have been treated brutally, and now have a quality of life far worse than in the years of Ukrainian rule. Their parliament (Mejlis) has been suspended since April 2016 on grounds of “ethnic extremism,” and many activists have fled or been arrested. Some have been murdered.
In the intervening years, thanks in part to Russian boasting, we’ve learned much about how the Crimean annexation was planned and executed. We know that Putin does not believe the Ukrainians are a separate people with a right to sovereignty over the territory they occupy, that is, as defined by the borders of the former “Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.” We know he gave the order to implement the assiduously pre-planned strategy to take the peninsula in Sochi in February in 2014. A reliable report suggests one of his advisors proposed a full-scale invasion to take much of Ukraine’s eastern half. In the event, Russia has settled, for now, for controlling through its proxies the further seven percent of Ukrainian territory it seized in April-May 2014 (which now carry the Orwellian names of the “People’s Republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk).
In 2006 the then Russian Ministry of Education (since renamed the Ministry for Enlightenment) oversaw the publication of, A History of Contemporary Russia 1945-2006: A Teaching Manual. It includes the following statement:
“The present borders of the Russian Federation are unnatural…because they cannot guarantee Russia’s security. This inadequacy must be addressed.”
This assertion looks significant in the light of later events, especially the use of military force on three occasions to regain territories that had been parts of the Soviet Union: South Ossetia, Abkhazia and other Georgian territory in 2008; Crimea in March 2014; and the de facto seizure of parts of eastern Ukraine in April-May 2014.
In 2009 Alexander Dugin, a prominent ideologist of Russian hyper-nationalism, urged Putin to resolve the Crimean and Ukrainian issues by creating a “New Russia” (Novorossiya), linking Russia and the Russian exclave of Transnistria (between Ukraine and Moldova) and including all the parts of Ukraine with large Russian-born or Russian-speaking populations. Dugin was probably encouraged by members of Putin’s administration and officers of the GRU and General Staff of the Armed Forces.
In November last year, Putin ratcheted up pressure on Ukraine when Russian naval vessels fired on Ukrainian ships in international waters near the Kerch Straits and took 24 Ukrainian sailors hostage. They remain imprisoned in Moscow, having broken no law recognised outside Russia. In effect, Putin is using the newly completed bridge across the strait, linking the Russian mainland to the peninsula, as a choke point to deny Ukrainian ships access to Ukrainian ports on the western shore of the Sea of Azov. Essentially, this turns the sea into a Russian lake, throttling the regional economy of unoccupied eastern Ukraine around the strategically vital city of Mariupol. This tactic is wholly consistent with the strategy proposed by Dugin.
A Russian publisher has just released a volume entitled, Sacred Crimea – Russian Land from Ancient Times. The blurb asserts that Russian science has disproven the long-established historical conclusion, based on archaeological evidence and written sources, that Crimea had been home to many different peoples since the time of the ancient-Greek colonies. It claims Crimea was, in fact, “exclusively Russian territory (chisto russkoi mestnost’iu), from at least the tenth century….The book…is written as popular science accessible to all our compatriots who take an interest in Crimea’s history and those of its places dear to their hearts.”
This revision of history was proclaimed by various Russian embassies on 18 March, including the Russian Embassy in Canberra. A statement on its website states: “the bloodshed in Donbass is a vivid argument to prove the rightness of that choice” (meaning, to annex Crimea). The bizarre logic of this assertion seems to be that, had the Russian military not seized Crimea and the Donbass, far more deaths would have occurred at the hands of Ukrainian “Nazis” than the current total of at least 13,000 Ukrainians (with a further 30,000 injured and more than one million displaced).
These statements highlight a feature of Putin’s 20 years in power: the reformatting of Russian history in support of his rule and policies. This grandiose exercise recalls the quip of the Russian satirist Mikhail Zadornov, that “Russia is a land with an unpredictable past.”
Pertinent too is a statement made in 2016 by Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky: “Any state whose elite does not seek to mould society’s historical memory surrenders some of its sovereignty…because someone else will do so, and then people’s heads will contain either a vacuum or trash.”
Medinsky’s colleague the Minister for Enlightenment Olga Vasileva banned more than 300 textbooks, well established in the curricula and a quarter of the total, on the grounds they were “insufficiently patriotic” and “do not sufficiently inculcate love for the Motherland.”
The Ukrainians know that Putin and many Russians do not consider them a separate nation. Dugin calls them a “quasi-people” and their country a “quasi-state.” On 30 March, a senior figure in the Russian Orthodox Church called for Ukraine’s dismembering, claiming that “there should be no such state as Ukraine” and that “we need to form a Novorossia by taking eight provinces from Kharkov to Odessa and absorbing them into Russia.”
The Ukrainians have doubtless concluded that while Putin rules they will remain at war. Unfortunately for them, the Russians are far more powerful. Unfortunately for the Russians, Putin’s policies have deeply entrenched anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine. As some Russians of moderate persuasion have argued, Moscow’s recognition of Ukraine’s right to genuine independence is a precondition for peace. This will be very difficult for Kyiv to extract from the Kremlin unless countries that support Ukraine’s aspirations increase the pressure on Moscow.
Kyle Wilson is a visiting fellow in the Centre for European Studies at the Australian National University. He previously had a long career with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Office of National Assessments, where he was a senior analyst for Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has also served as an official Russian interpreter for Australian heads of state, prime ministers and ministers.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution. It was forst written for the Australian Institute of International affairs.